Just as students booked flights and bus tickets, they faced the latest COVID-19 pandemic shock on Friday morning when President Martha E. Pollack canceled classes until April 6.
Uncertainty now permeates Cornell’s campus, as students have now been told to leave as soon as possible.
The surprise announcement reflects a looming concern that the current outbreak will worsen by spring break. Deputy Provost John Siliciano conceded that “in all likelihood it’s going to show up in the county if it hasn’t already.”
Even though Tompkins County said that there were still no confirmed cases in a Friday afternoon press conference, Tompkins County administrator Jason Molino declared a state of emergency, shuttering local schools.
“As you look across the country right now, we’re in fairly uncharted waters,” Lombardi said in an interview with The Sun.
With COVID-19 spreading seemingly unabated — the number of confirmed cases spiked 30 percent overnight to 421 in New York State — Cornell officials said the accelerated timeline was necessary to give students the chance to begin making travel plans.
“The greatest shift that I was feeling was the concern … travel, [which] is becoming more difficult, certainly downstate, in New York,” said Sharon McMullen, Assistant Vice President of Student and Campus Life for Health and Well-being.
The practical logistics of asking over 13,000 students to vacate campus is one that leaves a host of unsolved questions.
Lombardi had sent out an email to students living on-campus earlier in the week, asking them to fill out a form for housing accommodations. While the form’s deadline has been extended to Sunday, Lombardi said that the majority of students who filled out the survey said they intended to leave campus.
Students living on-campus that leave will receive a rebate for housing and meal plans, though the exact amount has yet to be determined. In anticipation of swelling unemployment, President Donald Trump announced on Friday that interest on federally-backed student loans would be deferred — but the University has yet to address potential changes to financial aid or deadlines for tuition payment.
Despite Friday’s turn of events, many students living off-campus want to stay in Ithaca. But for those planning to remain, McMullen urged students who plan to stay in Ithaca to not leave the city and travel to other states that have become epicenters of the virus.
“We’re going to be relying on all of the members of the community, both the Cornell community and the larger community to exercise caution during this unprecedented time,” McMullen said.
With classes suspended for almost the next month, significant adjustments to Cornell academics are likely to take place. The drop deadline has been extended from March 17 to April 21.
Though no plans have been confirmed, the University is also contemplating shifting the semester to account for the lost two weeks of instruction.
“We are currently exploring the regulatory requirements related to our academic calendar,” Siliciano said. “It is likely there will be some shifts later in the semester to account for the break from active instruction this month, however, no changes to the academic calendar have been made at this time.”
It is unclear if the pandemic will affect University operations in the fall semester.
Amidst widespread fear and frustration over the pandemic, Cornell Health will continue to offer its mental health services to students who remain on campus for these next two weeks.
“The full extent of how this bears out for, you know, for individuals for cities, towns, economies, everything is yet to be fully realized,” Lombardi said. “It will require a lot of ongoing work and fluidity as we make our way through this.”
A full transcript of the interview can be read below:
Correction, March 13, 8:40 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote concerning the virus’ likelihood to reach Tompkins County to Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi; in fact, Deputy Provost John Siliciano was the one who made that comment. It has since been updated.