Martha Pollack, at the grand opening of Cornell Tech

Cornell University President Martha Pollack.

With Cornell University's re-opening plans generating national headlines, school president Martha Pollack has made the media rounds since the plans were released, explaining the administration's thought process as they move forward with a plan for a "hybrid" semester starting Sept. 2.

Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff seemed aware there could be some blow-back to their decision and the methodology behind it, as they released a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Why Cornell Will Reopen in the Fall"  on Tuesday, the day the reopening plans were released. Pollack also appeared on CNBC's show "Squawk Box" on Thursday to explain the decision, which largely hinges on a curious finding by the school: that having students on campus allows for more oversight and testing by the school, and actually results in a safer climate because the school had heard from so many students that they would be returning to live in Ithaca regardless of whether or not classes were online or in-person. 

"The issue is that if we are having residential instruction, we can mandate testing and tracing and isolation on a very aggressive regular basis, we would be much less able to do it with students who are online and just happen to be living in Ithaca as opposed to Chicago or Atlanta or wherever," Pollack said on CNBC. She went on to detail the school's "robust" testing program that will be the backbone of the re-opening: a weekly coronavirus test for each student, the first using a nasal swab and then using cheek-swabs or saliva testing after that. 

Pooled testing will be utilized to boost convenience and lower costs, which means that 10 people's samples will be mixed together and tested; if the test comes back negative, the whole group is clear, while if it comes back positive then the individual samples are each tested to figure out who has the virus. 

Pollack said the school would be implementing a contact tracing program to be able to react to a positive test, and that whoever tested positive would have to self-isolate. She acknowledged that the school won't be able to control if students want to attend a party off-campus or a similarly non-socially distanced event. 

"We're not naive [...] we think we can influence it to some extent," Pollack said. "We're going to have a very extensive public health campaign, we're going to work with student leaders on bystander intervention [...] We're going to try to create a community of caring, but of course we do know there will be parties, there will be violations."

An escalating punishment system is being introduced for repeat offenders of the standards for masks and distancing, Pollack said. 

The plans have not satisfied all the school's communities, though. The Graduate Student Union, for one, has been vocal on social media about their apprehension surrounding the plans, mostly focused on in-person teaching for grad students who are assisting professors. Since June 30, the union's Twitter account has accumulated a running list of comments from grad students concerned about coming back to campus and angry that they feel they might be placed in harm's way because of in-person requirements. 

They've also published the results of an internal survey taken in late May that show some of the struggles graduate students are dealing with during the outbreak. Beyond that, Kotlikoff told the New York Times that one-third of professors said they were "not interested in teaching classes in person," with another one-third saying they were eager to get back to the classroom. 

(1) comment

Elisabeth Hegarty

I think it is a terrible mistake for the local universities to open in the Fall. If the remainder of the country did not have monumentally escalating amounts of new cases, the situation would be different. But just the thought of so many students from AZ, AL, CA, TX, FL and other hard-hit states to be returning to this region is terrifying, especially to the high-risk population. Tompkins County and its residents have worked hard to keep the number of Covid cases down by social distancing, proper tracing of known cases, use of masks and good hygiene practices. Why risk a pandemic in our own backyard when we haven't had new cases since the beginning of June? How do I know this is a possibility? Over the weekend, I drove past the sailing area along the waterfront - it was overrun with hundreds of young people congregating very close to each other - no masks, no social distancing. I saw a similar situation in Aurora, near Wells College, scores of young people on the lake on one raft - no social distancing, no masks. I would urge faculty members of local schools to refuse to teach this semester. I urge parents of university students to please encourage their children to take a year off from study. This might make Cornell and the other schools wake up to the fact that the risk is not worth the possible future deaths of Tompkins County residents. This area only has a few small hospitals. Being overrun with cases by the irresponsible behavior of people could cause a major catastrophe which would, in any event, result in Cornell being forced to close again, but this time after a great amount of the damage is done.

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