Olivia Weinberg / Sun Assistant News Editor

As Cornell announces its cancellation of in-person classes, students react.

March 11, 2020

‘Martha Can’t Make Us Leave’: Students React With Confusion, Frustration to Class Closure

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“OMG. I was ready for it, until I wasn’t ready for it.”

Jack Tracey’s ’20 initial reaction mirrored that of many other students to the Tuesday afternoon news that Cornell’s last five weeks of spring classes would be moved online, a decision in line with other institutions across the country in response to the spreading COVID-19 outbreak.

With the University urging students to stay in their “permanent” homes after spring break, some seniors like Tracey will have their last-ever day of classes at Cornell on March 27.

As students digested the implications, they expressed concerns about the financial burden and logistics, mixed reactions about the timing of the announcement and thoughts about the actual feasibility of online classes.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? 

Currently, 46 percent of students live on campus. Students who wish to stay in Cornell housing after spring break will have to petition the University on a case-by-case basis. All undergraduate students are expected to leave, but plans by the administration to enforce the decision on students living off campus remain unclear.

According to the University’s statement, dining halls will remain open to accommodate students in Ithaca, but there will be “severely limited on-campus activities.”

Most students interviewed by The Sun Tuesday evening who live off campus said they probably would not leave Ithaca due to the financial and logistical burden it would cause.

For senior students such as Tracey who have now spent the better part of four years living away from their “permanent” homes, this decision has set off an “identity crisis.”

“I live here. More than half of my life is established in an apartment in Ithaca,” Tracey said. “Sure, I have a defined ‘permanent home,’ but my shit’s here. So it’s like, where’s home?”

Akanksha Jain ’20 has concerns about returning home to Singapore, and said her first thought when she opened the email was concern for fellow international students.

“For Americans it sucks, but there’s ways to get around it,” she said. She said she will likely end up staying in Ithaca or with family elsewhere in the U.S..

The Office of Global Learning sent out an email to international students around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, reassuring them that if they cannot easily return home, the campus residence and dining halls will be open through the rest of the semester.

They additionally advised seniors working to secure their Optional Practical Training — which is used to allow students to work in the U.S. after obtaining their degree — to not depart for the remainder of the semester because in order to be eligible, students must be in the U.S. with F-1 status and have a valid I-94 document.

While some students’ homes are thousands of miles away, others are only traveling a few blocks to follow Cornell’s advice — such as Madeline Turner ’23, whose family lives in Ithaca. Despite living only minutes from her professors, all her classes will be online.

“I’m gonna be like in my room, in my childhood bedroom, by myself,” Turner said.

And with the cancellation, some first-year spring admit students like Lia Sokol ’23 will spend only 10 total weeks on campus during their freshman years.

“We just got here,” she said, sitting in Willard Straight Hall. “And now we’re leaving.”

Academic Challenges Arise

Sokol said that — having spent only a few months attending Cornell classes — she wasn’t ready to transition online, and worried about non-lecture components such as office hours. She also expressed concerns about her transcript, and whether Cornell would denote the semester’s special circumstances on her permanent record.

“I can’t imagine I’ll get the same experience or grades or anything that I would have gotten if I were here,” Sokol said.

President Martha E. Pollack recognized this disruptive effect of transitioning online in her announcement email to the student body, but urged students and faculty to abide by the new measures to protect the community, especially those who are most vulnerable.

“We are asking students to miss out on the enormous value of face-to-face instruction and on the camaraderie of their peers,” Pollack wrote, but stressed the health concerns involved in the choice.

The sudden email announcement just after 5 p.m. added new stressors during an academically-heavy week, students said.

“I’m still panicking from when I first read the message,” Grace Zheng ’23 told The Sun an hour before her 7:30 p.m. Computer Science 1110: Intro to Python prelim. Zheng said that she had spent much of the last few hours trying to find a storage unit for her belongings and communicating with friends, pulling her attention from the encroaching exam.

Faculty are currently moving to transition lectures online, but their students are concerned about how classes with hands-on work or a practical component are going to be affected.

“Engineering courses are not very well suited for online. We rely on office hours and TAs and in-person collaboration — writing a lot,” said Tilka Persaud ’21, who studies chemical engineering.

Persaud is disappointed that she will miss her lab for the rest of the spring, joking that she’ll probably have to read a handbook on valves to substitute the time she would have spent there instead.

Beyond classes in STEM fields with lab work and hands-on architecture studio classes, hotel school classes like HADM 4300: Introduction to Wines, where students taste around six varieties of wine per lecture, will also feel an impact.

“Obviously not everyone will be able to taste if they’re not here. [Prof. Cheryl Stanley]’s like, do I drink the wine on camera? Is that worse for them?” said Tracey, who is a teaching assistant for the class.

Changing Reality

While some students appreciated that the University made the decision two weeks before spring break — other schools, such as Yale, made similar moves with less than a week’s notice —  others questioned the need to cancel at all.

“It’s just weird. It went from like zero to getting kicked off campus in a span of two or three days,” said Collette Schissel ’20.

Schissel also expressed concerns about the policy’s effectiveness if students in a controlled campus environment begin traveling worldwide amidst an outbreak.

“I feel like this could be wrong too,” she said. “But if we have been here on campus since January, isn’t it riskier to leave if we’ve all been here?”

While the Cornell administration has expressed hopes to hold some Commencement activities, students mourned the loss of big-ticket spring events such as Dragon Day, Senior Days and this month’s Denzel Curry featuring Rico Nasty concert.

As of early Wednesday, a GroupMe called “martha can’t make us leave” had over 2,400 members. The group included memes about the COVID-19 outbreak, plans for an alternate Slope Day and groups events including “Tag at Kroch [Library]” and “Purge.”

“Senior year is supposed to be like your most fun semester … and now it kind of feels like you’re missing out on that, which kind of sucks,” said Ely Giroux ’20. “I’m gonna try and just continue business as usual as much as I can, but obviously we’re gonna have to make some concessions, sort of trying to preserve safety for people.”

Louis Chuang ’23 contributed reporting to this article.