Cornell plans to reactivate Ithaca campus for fall semester

The suspense is over: Cornell plans to welcome students back to its Ithaca campus for a fall semester blending in-person and online instruction, confident that decision best serves public health, President Martha E. Pollack announced June 30.

From classrooms to residence halls to dining facilities, no aspect of campus life will be quite the same as before the coronavirus pandemic abruptly forced a shift to virtual instruction in early April, Pollack said in a message to the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses.

Students will be expected to observe strict behavioral requirements and participate in a comprehensive testing program designed to detect and contain any spread of COVID-19.

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But with those safeguards in place, Pollack said, epidemiological modeling by university experts showed that resuming residential learning this fall would create a safer environment for Cornell and its neighbors than if classes were only held online.

“The key consideration in our decision to reopen is public health,” Pollack said. “Residential instruction, when coupled with a robust virus screening program of the form we intend to implement, is a better option for protecting the public health of our community than a purely online semester.”

The university is finalizing a reopening plan required to be submitted to New York state for the Ithaca campus and Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, which Pollack said will include more details and be shared with the community. In New York City, Cornell Tech has previously announced an all-online fall semester, and Weill Cornell Medicine plans a hybrid semester.

Fall classes will start Sept. 2, according to a modified academic calendar that will have most students return home before Thanksgiving break. They’ll finish the term with online instruction and exams in December, before a delayed start to the spring semester in February. Detailed plans for an extended, phased move-in period, including screening for COVID-19, will be released in the weeks ahead, the university said.

For those unable to return to Ithaca, remote learning options will be available.

Pollack’s announcement followed the release of reports by three reactivation committees comprising university leadership, faculty, students and staff, whom Pollack thanked for “incredibly hard work” over more than two months.

The university also considered input from community forums and surveys; collaborated closely with state and local health officials, including the Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Health System, and community partners including Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College; and received valuable insights from the Cornell Board of Trustees, Pollack said.

Modeling by a Cornell team led by Peter Frazier, associate professor in the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering, contributed important – if counterintuitive – findings.

The analysis determined that two to 10 times more people could be infected with COVID-19 during a semester conducted entirely online, with significantly higher numbers becoming seriously ill.

That’s because surveys indicated a large percentage of Cornell students planned to return to off-campus housing in Ithaca even if all instruction was conducted remotely. In that scenario, Cornell would have had no authority to mandate testing or restrict students’ behavior.

Now, students living on or off campus will be subject to agreements to follow public health guidelines and an “absolute requirement” to comply with a testing program, Pollack said.

“A robust virus screening program will be critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” she said. “Our goal will be to identify infected individuals and quickly isolate them and those with whom they had close contact.”

Testing will begin before or upon students’ arrival in Ithaca, with frequent screening throughout the semester. They’ll perform a Daily Check, completing an online questionnaire about health symptoms and other risk factors that faculty and staff who have been approved to work on campus are already using, as required by New York state.

Staff who can perform their jobs remotely have been asked to continue doing so to help de-densify the campus.

In many other ways, Pollack said, this fall “will be different from any semester we’ve experienced before.”

Courses will offer a mix of in-person and virtual instruction. Masks will be required in classrooms modified for physical distancing, with assigned seats. On-campus housing will be limited to single- and double-occupancy rooms with assigned bathrooms. Dining will be to-go or by online reservation at distanced tables, using disposable cutlery. Large social gatherings will be restricted, and the university will promote “innovative approaches to socializing while distancing.”

Beyond such operational changes, Pollack said each member of the community must adapt their behavior to public health realities likely to remain in place until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.

“I am asking all of our returning Cornell community to adopt a culture of shared responsibility for our safety and well-being,” Pollack said. “That will necessitate behaving, both on campus and off campus, in ways that at times will be difficult and may feel constrained, but are crucial both for Cornell and for the greater community in which we live.”

The university cannot eliminate the risk of infection, she said, but is committed to minimizing that risk and providing accommodations and support for vulnerable students, faculty and staff.

Changing pandemic conditions may force Cornell to modify its reopening strategy in the coming weeks, or prompt behavioral requirements to be tightened or eased as the semester progresses, Pollack said.

The university next week will announce a series of town halls to answer questions about the reopening plans, even as details are being worked out. Updates will be shared via email and on the university’s COVID-19 website.

Pollack said Cornell’s path forward, based on extensive committee research and scientific analysis, represents the best way to play the challenging hand dealt by the pandemic.

“The year ahead will be different, it will be difficult, but it will, I believe, still be a year to treasure – a year of exploration and discovery, a year of friendship, and of growth,” Pollack said. “I look forward with all of you to the return of our students, and to finding new ways to learn, teach, and move forward – despite the challenges – together.”

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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