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University administration announced on Tuesday afternoon that it would take the dramatic step of sending all students home after spring break, in a bid to curtail COVID-19's deadly spread.

March 11, 2020

Cornell to Close Classrooms in Unprecedented Step, Though Questions Remain

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Cornell became the latest university to announce that it would go digital after spring break, following a wave of colleges nationwide that have canceled in-person classes due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The sudden closures represent an unprecedented decision in Cornell’s history — reflecting the seriousness of an epidemic that, in just a week, spiraled from a handful of cases to hundreds reported across New York State.

According to a March 10 statement from President Martha E. Pollack, all classes will be held online after spring break and faculty members must soon begin transitioning to virtual alternatives. Classroom teaching is permitted until March 27, after which courses must be taught digitally for the rest of the semester.

“This is really an extraordinary situation for us, that we have to consider the health and safety of our community in such a strong way,” Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi told The Sun. “This decision is significant and has lots of consequences to it.”

As classes move online, campus events with more than 100 people are prohibited, a policy that upends some of the University’s staples. Men’s and women’s hockey will play largely spectator-less as they compete in the playoffs, while Cornell Days, a chance for admitted students to tour campus, was cancelled outright.

The fate of Cornell Fashion Collective’s annual show is unclear, and a final determination on how graduation will be conducted has yet to be made.

While some graduate students may be allowed to continue research on-campus, all undergraduates are asked to return to “their permanent home residence” at the start of spring break, according to the newly announced policy, though under “essential” circumstances, exemptions may be possible.

The historic move — which will likely have implications on everything from housing to graduation plans — leaves in its wake a reeling campus, with students, faculty and administrators alike forced to traverse uncharted territory.

Although the plan makes clear a need for swift action, the practical logistics of shifting over 13,000 students on to a largely untested mode of teaching — while cutting the semester short by four weeks — is one that leaves a host of unsolved questions.

For instance, according to Deputy Provost John Siliciano, there are “no easy answers” as school deans and academic departments figure out how to administer finals, or teach majors, like Architecture, which are heavily dependent on physical studios.

Classes composed of students that span dozens of time zones across the globe also may pose an obstacle.

“We’re going to have to think differently about how we do everything,” added Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education. The hope is that by providing an over two-week-long transition period, some of these obvious challenges may be addressed.

Although Cornell’s new COVID-19 policy encourages students to complete the semester remotely, Lombardi noted that there will likely “be some number that we will need to support” on campus, particularly those who cannot travel home due to the virus’ spread.

How many students ultimately fall into that category, Lombardi said, will determine what level of dining and support services are maintained. Despite a likely significant decline in the number of students residing on campus, the University does not have plans to terminate any full-time employees. Opportunities for student employment will depend on the population of campus remaining after spring break.

But for those who do leave campus — and have already paid for semester-long meal and housing contracts — it has yet to be determined how, and if, proration of fees will be implemented.

The University’s March 27 deadline for ending in-person classes is notably later than other schools that have announced similar plans, a decision mainly driven by when Cornell’s spring break falls, according to Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being.

“Our peer institutions that are moving more precipitously, have earlier spring breaks,” McMullen told The Sun. “And so what we recognize is that if people leave campus to go away on spring break, they are more likely to be exposed to coronavirus in an area that has more disease circulating than does Tompkins County.”

Harvard University, for instance, asked its students to vacate campus by this Sunday, while Columbia University has already made the switch to online teaching. Both schools are situated in cities that have so far reported at least dozens of cases.

But according to Lombardi, with the way coronavirus “is tracking around the U.S. and globe,” the administration will continue to monitor the situation “very closely, day-by-day.”

While Tompkins County has investigated three individuals for possible exposure to the virus, none have tested positive so far. If that changes, however, Lombardi said he recognizes that “things may evolve and may cause us to have to reconsider” the current transition timeline.

Meghna Maharishi ’21 contributed reporting to this article.