Cornell University President Martha Pollack made her long-awaited reactivation announcement Tuesday afternoon in a campus-wide email, declaring that Cornell will return on Sept. 2 for a combination of in-person learning and online instruction for those who need or desire it.
As other schools have done, Cornell will send students home for Thanksgiving break and the rest of the semester will be held online-only, including final exams, though students who obtain a waiver will be able to stay on-campus. The fall semester will end on Dec. 21, 2020. Pollack is sure to note throughout the message that all of these plans are dependent on the severity of the coronavirus outbreak. The spring semester is scheduled to be held in-person, and will start Feb. 9, 2021.
"It was just over three months ago, in the wake of the emerging pandemic, that we needed to swiftly deactivate our campus and shift – mid-semester – to online instruction," Pollack wrote in an announcement to students. "Since then, the question I have been asked the most is whether we will reopen for instruction this fall. Today I am writing to tell you that the answer for our Ithaca campus is yes, we plan to have an in-person semester with hybrid instruction and opportunities for remote learning for those who cannot return."
The school has decided to go with the two-pronged approach of allowing students access to all-online classes or in-person with online access available if the student is off-campus or must quarantine. It sounds like teachers will have discretion on some of the finer, specific points of their classroom modalities.
"Faculty also will have the option of embracing a hybrid approach where some elements of a course are delivered online and others in-person, or where student cohorts take turns participating remotely versus in-person," Pollack said.
Arguably the centerpiece of the reopening plan is the "robust testing program" that Cornell keeps touting, though the exact specifics of how often students will have to be tested, and under what circumstances, is unclear. Pollack does say that compliance with the program will be mandatory, and will include "ongoing, frequent" testing in addition to a screening before students arrive on campus.
In her note, Pollack cites the pandemic modeling completed internally by Cornell researchers (previously mentioned here) that showed they believe a localized outbreak is less likely if students are on-campus and enrolled in in-person classes in some capacity, because it allows the school greater surveillance and contact tracing abilities than if classes were being held only online, since many students told the school they would be returning to live in Ithaca regardless of the school's class modalities.
In classrooms, students and faculty will both have to wear facemasks or coverings, and students will have seating that will keep them six feet away from each other (keeping classroom capacity at around 20 percent at a time). In-person caps will be strictly enforced.
Dorms will be limited to single- and double-occupancy rooms. It's unclear what will happen to students who were slated to live in triple- or quadruple-rooms. Dining halls will be properly spaced, and to-go service will be introduced at all dining locations. In-person concerts and visiting lectures will be suspended. Bathrooms will be "monitored" for over-sharing and kitchenettes will include social distancing signage, but remain open.
This is the vaguest part of Pollack's letter. She states that students will have to sign a conduct agreement, but the specifics of that agreement are nowhere to be found.
"While we will be mounting a public health education campaign aimed at reinforcing these expectations among our community, it will be the responsibility of each member of our community to embrace these behavioral requirements," Pollack wrote. "As noted earlier, we must establish a culture of shared responsibility, and each of us must take steps not only to protect ourselves, but also to protect others in the community."
One of the most notable things about Cornell is its prominent international student community, though travel restrictions and national guidelines may diminish that this year, the school admitted. If students are forced to remain in their home countries, the school has developed a program called "Study Away" at a dozen locations worldwide that would allow students to stay and study at a campus close to them while still being enrolled at Cornell and having access to its services.
The school is telling workers who can do so to stay home and work remotely. The total policy on visitors from off-campus is not clear yet, but is forthcoming and will "strongly discourage" and restrict people from off-campus. Non-essential business travel will be forbidden, and guidance will be developed to help safely plan personal and essential business trips.
"I believe that our plan, informed by our reopening committees and based on scientific analysis, is the best possible way to play the hand this pandemic has dealt us," Pollack wrote. "But we have to play it together: All of us will need to be vigilant, and to make decisions about our activities each day that are rooted in shared concern for community well-being. Our experiences over the coming months will also depend, in large measure, on the patience and kindness with which we treat each other and ourselves."
Immediate community reaction was positive, as it was when Ithaca College announced their plans to return to campus on Oct. 5 in an all in-person capacity. Tompkins County Health Director Frank Kruppa commended the decision to come back in September.
“Cornell has shown a careful approach to putting protocols in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Their plans reflect their commitment to their campus community and Tompkins County residents,” Kruppa said. “The plan is thorough, including a robust testing program, a coordinated approach to isolation, quarantine, and contact tracing, and significant modifications to campus life.”
Cayuga Health CEO Dr. Martin Stallone echoed the sentiment, and said the announcement and plans highlight the steps being taken locally to remain careful during reopening.
"Expanding testing capabilities and supporting our communities’ health and viability, has been our primary focus since the onset of COVID-19," Stallone said. "The success of our universities and colleges are vital to maintaining our economic sustainability in the region. We have been collaborating with Cornell University for many weeks in support of their reactivation planning. In addition to Cornell University, we have also been working with Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, and other higher education institutions and businesses in our region."