Cornell University

This is a developing story, more will be made available once the reports are fully assessed. 

When and in what form Cornell University returns in the fall has been perhaps the primary question on the minds of Tompkins County residents, business owners, government officials and the like over the last several months. With the release of 160+ pages of reports containing potential recommendations for re-activation for the fall semester, we at least now have a slightly better glimpse at what the school's return could look like, although the ultimate decision from President Martha Pollack isn't expected until early July. The reports indicate that there is likely to be some mix of in-person and remote learning options available and that the school year will start later than normal to allow the school to prepare its coronavirus testing abilities. 

The recommendations mainly come from the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options, which compiled a 97 page report with three main strategies they were acting upon: Identification and containment of infection; mitigation of coronavirus spread through individual and institutional-level approaches; and monitoring strategy to evaluate the health of the Cornell community and course-correct the response. According to Pollack, the final course of action will be informed by the "committee process and guidance from New York state and local and public health officials." 

"It is important to note that the recommendations put forth in this report represent the committee’s best assessment as of June 15, 2020, based on evidence gleaned from the current literature, input from many constituents in our community, and counsel from peer institutions and medical experts around the country," one report states. "It will be important for these assessments to be revisited as new knowledge becomes available and the feasibility of specific recommendations is determined."

The most significant recommendations of the reports are that the school would re-open later than normal and eliminate breaks during Fall semester, then move to an all-online format after the Thanksgiving break. That is designed to discourage break-time traveling among students, who could stay home after Thanksgiving, and also means they would avoid spending the bulk of flu season on-campus; plus, Cornell said they are planning on a fully in-person spring semester starting in February. Employees who can work remotely are still recommended to continue doing so. 

The exact start date of fall semester is not clear, but it would be moved back in order to provide Cornell time to prepare for the new restrictions and procedures they would be implementing, as well as understanding which students would be on campus and which wouldn't. In terms of classes, the school is looking at two "teaching modalities," one that would be all online for students, and another that would be in-person but would offer remote access for national or international students who wouldn't be there in-person; classes could also be staggered, with some groups of students participating online and others being in the classroom during different class days. Students in classes would have to wear masks and sit in assigned seats. 

Perhaps most interesting and perplexing is that Cornell's Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options found that if the school didn't open for residential instruction and left students for an all-online instruction option, the coronavirus could actually get worse, contrary to most beliefs. The reasoning here:

"We also modeled the likely infectious disease outcome should Cornell choose to operate the Fall 2020 semester entirely online. Paradoxically, the model predicts that not opening the campus for residential instruction could result in a greater number of infected individuals affiliated with Cornell, given that we expect a large number of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students will still choose to return to Ithaca, adding to the population of those who have done so already, regardless of teaching modality. This observation highlights the value of a robust, mandatory testing program, and the importance of Cornell’s focused attempts to influence student behaviors that could potentially exacerbate spread of the virus. Hence, it appears that in addition to the educational advantages that would arise, opening the campus for residential instruction may be in the best interest of the health of the Cornell community, Ithaca, and surrounding communities."

The report advocates for reinstating the normal grading policy, though with some changes in how classes and exams are conducted. It also recommends a more stringent policy on the 18-credit maximum in order to preserve students' mental health in what is sure to be a more stressful semester than under normal circumstances. 

"Faculty are actively encouraged to consider alternatives to high-stakes exams where possible and avoid grading on a curve," the report states. "Graduating seniors who need more credits to graduate will be permitted to petition to enroll in more than the agreed upon maximum number of credits."

Visitors to campus would be significantly restricted through the fall semester, and non-essential business travel should be basically forbidden, and the reports state that the school should formulate a plan that would address what should happen with people returning from personal trips off-campus. 

Further, Cornell predicts that classroom capacity will only be around 20 percent of what it normally is, when considering six feet of social distancing must be maintained. Still, while using rooms that aren't normally part of the classroom inventory, and potentially scheduling classes during the 4:30-7:30 p.m. time period, one of the reports states that it's feasible "to accommodate the majority (if not all) of the courses with in-person components." The recommendations further state that attendance should not be a graded portion of any in-person classes, since it would incentivize students showing up when potentially sick. 

As for housing, quad- and triple-rooms should be eliminated according to the recommendations, while singles and doubles should be maintained in order to avoid pushing students who can afford to live off campus into even more crowded conditions there. No information appears to be available on where students, though the reports do indicate that local hotels, including Cornell's the Statler, are interested in contracting with Cornell to serve as quarantine or isolation spaces for students who may need to do so either at the beginning of the semester or if something arises during classes; these hotels have been experiencing massive downturns since the outbreak began. Dining halls are expected to provide delivery for quarantined students and take-out services to facilitate distancing; higher costs are expected with this. 

The school acknowledges that it doesn't have much control over the density maintained in Greek organization housing. Move-in dates aren't specifically discussed, although they do recommend two main options: either a four day period with rapid testing results, or an eight day period with 24 hour testing results. 

Read the report mainly referenced in this article here, from the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options. 

Read the two other reports, which we will be analyzing more throughout the day, on Reactivating Research and Supporting Operations and the Committee for Preparation for Online Teaching

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