You can only live Cornell once, and our time is being cut short.
On March 10, Cornell President Martha Pollack told the campus community that — in an effort to “minimize future community spread” of the COVID-19 in Tompkins County — the University would move to virtual instruction for the remainder of the semester.
Since the emailed announcement, reactions across campus have varied wildly. Some professed relief regarding the extra month and a half of summer vacation, while others sobbed uncontrollably upon receiving the news that they would have to leave their home far above Cayuga’s waters. This is to be expected. The lives that Cornellians lead away from campus are vastly different and students have had limited time to cope with the realization that their Cornell experience is to end, suddenly, two months earlier than expected.
Cornell’s shift towards virtual classrooms follows several other major universities — including Harvard, New York University, Princeton and Columbia. Despite the general outcry following President Pollack’s announcement, the reality of the virus is sobering. According to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Reports, there have been over 118,000 confirmed cases (of which around 64,000 have recovered) globally. Over 1,000 of these are in the U.S.; 173 of the domestic cases are in New York State.
Further, according to the University’s demographics report on the class of 2023, 33.7 percent of freshmen hail from New York. Many of these students will be heading home to communities already affected by COVID-19. The same can be said for the 11 percent of freshmen returning to the West coast or the 11.1 percent who are international (if travel restrictions even allow their safe return).
In this time of uncertainty, immense change and fear, it is essential that the Cornell community binds together in support of each other — and this message is echoed in Pollack’s announcement. Moving forward, students, faculty and administrators alike must remember to uphold the innately Cornellian values of empathy and compassion.
For students: Understand that your reality is different from the realities of your peers. You may be heading home to a community unaffected by COVID-19, while your suitemate may already be personally affected. You may be heading home to a safe and loving home environment; your friends may not. Indeed, you may be heading home — your friends may not have that luxury. Now more than ever, be neighborly to each other. Help each other get home (if you can) — or help each other find home upon our hill.
If you are an underclassman, recognize that your senior friends are losing their final semester, the proud culmination of arguably the most formative four years of their lives. Comfort them, and remind them that they deserve to be celebrated.
To the faculty: Students know how hard you are working, and will continue to work, to make sure that we have an adapted curriculum. We understand the importance of your safety as well, and we will certainly be patient during this significant academic change. But it is important for you to be understanding of your students as well: All Cornellians are about to navigate a major life disruption. Many are losing their only home by being asked to leave Ithaca, and the submission of a reading response by 5 p.m. on Thursday may be the furthest thing from their minds.
Finally, to the administration: Before any request is made, it is important to acknowledge that the University’s timely and responsible action plan can be lauded. When looking back upon the history books in coming decades, every single Cornellian ought to be proud when reflecting on this episode: for once, wellbeing was the top priority of the administration.
This is not to say the plans are infallible — many Cornell community members are unable to get home due to travel restrictions. And many people, even if they are able to make it to their “permanent residences,” are not returning to a safe environment, perhaps due to familial, societal or health reasons.
The University has an obligation to ensure that Cornellians who must remain in Ithaca are safe. Cornell should collaborate with the Cayuga Medical Center and other surrounding hospitals in case of a local outbreak. Cornell should ensure that students who must remain in University housing are provided with an adequate living situation, that student employees are provided with all possible fiscal and emotional support. And, finally, Cornell should realize that it is inevitable that students — undergraduates, in particular — will return to Ithaca for the months of April and May.
According to the University, nearly 52 percent of Cornell undergraduates live off campus, and over 90 percent of graduate and professional students do so as well. At a school where the class of 2023’s average need-based grant award from Cornell funds is $43,122, it is unsurprising that students who are paying exorbitant rents in Ithaca may choose to remain in their off-campus housing. For this reason, the “enhanced cleaning procedures” that are expected to begin on March 11 must continue long past spring break.
Further, many staff members are unable to do their work remotely. So, if for nothing else, the University must remain operational and proactive in preventing the spread of COVID-19 for their sake.
The highest priority, for this administration, is to keep its community informed. A lengthy email can be effective, but this community — a fabric of human beings with fears, ambitions, emotions and experiences — needs the support, the faces and the voices of other human beings. Answer the questions students have: about graduation, visas, reimbursements, time zones and final exams. For those questions that are presently without answers, solicit the voices of the students and staff.
This is a strange and scary time to be a Cornellian; in fact, it’s a strange and scary time to be a human being. Take care of each other, help each other find solace and, above all else, make sure that you cherish these final two weeks on campus this semester.
The above editorial reflects the opinions of The Cornell Daily Sun. Editorials are penned collaboratively between the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor, in consultation with additional Sun editors and staffers. The Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage, other columnists and advertisers.