Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun File Photo

The Sun interview top administrators Ryan Lombardi, John Siliciano, Lisa Nishii, Sharon McMullen and Joel Malina over the University's sudden COVID-19 update, which required that students leave campus as soon as possible.

March 14, 2020

The Sun Interviews Top Administrators on COVID-19 Policy Change

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Editor’s note: After President Martha E. Pollack’s announcement suspending classes until April 6, The Sun spoke with University administrators regarding the policy change. 

Ryan Lombardi: Obviously, there has been another big announcement today from President Pollack. A lot of good detail from her. Just framing this in terms of importance and why she and we thought it was important to make this shift in our plans for a couple reasons. One, accelerating this plan to increase social distancing and support the public health approach to minimizing risk. We had second, a growing concern about the increasing difficulty that students might have to travel home. If we waited or if we continue to wait, obviously as you look at the news around the country and certainly around the globe, travel is becoming increasingly complex. We felt like the longer we waited, the greater the risk that we’re putting our students in ultimately not being able to leave Cornell campus where they have their community, and we wanted to mitigate the effects of that.

Then we heard, a lot from students this week — and I certainly spent a lot of time out and about campus engaging with students — that it was just extraordinarily difficult for them to maintain their coursework in an effective manner. Given the stress and the uncertainty and the kind of planning and thinking that was taking shape in their minds under the previous plan, where in just a couple of weeks after spring break, there would have been the shift. We heard from a lot of students that it was just really difficult to continue to stay focused on their studies while thinking about the future.

That confluence of factors really prompted us to think that it was the right time to accelerate this plan, to make a decision to suspend classes, which allows students to kind of de-escalate that stress that had been building, allows faculty adequate time to really get ramped up for the preparation to virtual learning, and also allows students ample time to make their way from Ithaca to their permanent home residence, understanding that some may choose to initiate that right away and that some may gradually make that transition over the next couple of weeks. So again, obviously, as you look across the country right now, we’re in fairly unchartered waters. And if you think about the history of higher education we’re in, we’re also in unchartered waters. But I think that the President’s decisive action today supports the surrounding the situation that’s developing around us, and most importantly, certainly from my seat supports our Cornell community, faculty, staff and students. So I’ll just stop there. I know I’m sure you have many questions.

The Sun: So just to start things off, obviously, a lot of the issues and reactions that we face today are very similar to those on Tuesday. So I’m just wondering specifically what in the past 48 hours changed to prompt this pretty significant change in direction with regards to Cornell’s policy on this outbreak.

Lombardi: I think for me, the greatest shift that I was feeling was the concern around two things. The concern around travel, and the increasing complexity of that, we’re hearing quite a bit, because travel’s becoming more difficult, certainly downstate, in New York, but across the nation, and certainly internationally. That was one very new and emerging factor since the previous discussion and announcement. The second was really just the reaction from students and the difficulty that we heard from students in their ability to successfully balance the continued coursework and rigor of their academics while having this uncertainty in the plans, and developing their own plans as things unfold around us. And so those were the two factors in my mind that really necessitated the shift.

John Siciliano: I would agree with that and just to add a little bit, you know, I don’t see it as a change in direction, I see it as an acceleration towards steps that we likely would have had to take in the near distant future. In all likelihood, it’s going to show up in the County soon if it hasn’t already and watching the progression elsewhere and how it’s accelerated, we just thought that for the sake of the students and the health of the area, we needed to get a little bit out in front of what’s probably a very likely occurrence shortly.

The Sun: Just to follow up to the health concern angle, are there any worries that there’ll be any issues with so many people at once traveling back home, and then also a significant number of people who remain off campus then in the Ithaca area?

Sharon McMullen: You know, it’s a calculated risk. We think that making these moves now is safer than it will be to make them in the coming future. Nothing that we do is 100 percent guaranteed, but we do think that traveling now is preferable to traveling in a week or in two weeks.

The Sun: And then, based on our reporting, we found that a relatively large number [of students] — especially upperclassmen — will be staying in Ithaca because they have off-campus housing. I was wondering if that poses a risk at all that a relatively significant number of college students will remain in Ithaca for the rest of the semester.

McMullen: I think there’s going to be a request to our students who are staying in the Ithaca area that they observe those social distancing interventions; for example, not traveling away from the Ithaca Area and then coming back to Ithaca. I think 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. Again, there are no guarantees in it. We’re making the best, most prudent decisions that we can in a timely fashion as possible.

Lombardi: This is right, I just want to underscore Sharon’s point there. I recognize that some students who live on campus will choose to stay here. And indeed, we’ll have some students on campus who have requested exemptions and some of those will certainly be granted. But those students will need, very importantly, to not go away and then come back. I think that would be not in congruence with the recommendations of public health guidelines. I have heard other students expressing concerns that they’ve heard their peers saying they’re going to do that and I would really encourage students to reconsider that approach. And similarly, as Sharon alluded to, with the social distancing recommendations, that doesn’t suggest that those who are saying here should use it as an opportunity for large gatherings and things like that, because again, that would be completely in congruent with what all the public health recommendations are suggesting. So I really would appeal to the good sense of our students, which of course they all have, to make sure that we’re being as diligent as possible.

The Sun: And then to follow up on on-campus housing, what are the results of the survey? I know it had a March 13 deadline that has been extended. What was the overall sense that you got from that? And to follow up, how stringent Are you going to be with granting exemptions? How many people do you expect to deny?

Lombardi: I don’t have numbers for you, but I will say that the vast majority of students — so we sent that to students who live on campus, the vast majority of on-campus students have responded to the survey. And the vast majority of the students who live on campus have stated their intent to leave. There is certainly a number — I don’t have that number right now — of students who have asked to stay and I would suspect most of them have indicated very good reasons for that. So most of the ones that have requested, we will likely grant. Again, I don’t know the exact numbers, how many yes versus how many no, but the questions are to be asked in that survey, [which] I think spelled out pretty clearly the circumstances in which we would anticipate students to stay. I think students largely were honoring that in their requests.

The Sun: Also, since this announcement, has the criteria for housing accommodations changed?

Lombardi: It has not. No it has not. Now we do know and in fact, I got a question from a student a short while ago that this announcement may prompt some students to change their mind about what they were thinking. We plan to begin releasing notifications about the on-campus housing later on today. When we do that, for the students who have been granted the ability to stay, they will have the chance to change their mind when they receive that. So I have heard from students, a couple of students who said, now that we have a couple weeks time, I am no longer going to stay. So they will have the opportunity to do that. If that’s the case, if the circumstance has changed the other way, students should email my office. That was also indicated in the email that they received.

The Sun: And so, given the pretty drastic impacts on employment this could have in the coming weeks and months, will Cornell anticipate any changes in financial aid policy that occur within the semester on an ad hoc basis, especially for families where the parents might have been laid off or or terminated as a result of this and can no longer pay tuition for the semester?

Siliciano: I have not been a part of any conversations about this specific aspect of financial aid, and would hesitate to comment on it without being able to consult with the experts. It’s so complicated.

I would add that’s on the long list of things to be thought about, but we need a little bit longer time and get closer to such a situation. I think that’s a good point. I mean, you know, Tommy is and I know you folks at the Sun are certainly following this. The impact worldwide is  quite significant right now, and so the full extent of how this bears out for individuals, for cities, towns, economies, everything is yet to be fully realized, but will require a lot of ongoing work and fluidity as we make our way through this.

The Sun: Have you anticipated any changes upcoming to the academic calendar for the fall semester?

Siliciano: That’s a great question. It’s beyond our punishing horizon at the moment.

The Sun: How do you anticipate communicating with students when they’re scattered around the globe, in terms of communicating policy changes, communicating what your expectations are for them, for students graduating any logistics about commencement if everybody’s not necessarily in the same spot?

Lombardi: I was just gonna say, I think we’ll have to stay in frequent communication via email. I think that the institution will likely create a number of web resources, too, so that students can frequently come and check and monitor for updates. Certainly, as we have now with a coronavirus health update website, as other academic policies could shape and the impacts of this take shape, I’m sure we’ll be posting other things too, but as well as pushing emails to students, John, if that’s okay, from your perspective.

The Sun: We reported this morning about some employees with challenges who are getting laid off. Do you anticipate offering any support, or what do you anticipate your staff and faculty pay wage and payroll looking like?

Lombardi: So you probably saw on the President’s message that she did make a pretty strong commitment to supporting our staff and our faculty through this transition. Our Vice President for Human Resources, Mary Opperman, similarly is preparing to very shortly send a message to all staff, reiterating that sentiment. I know a lot of college deans, unit leaders like myself and my colleagues on the phone are sending similar messages to the staff. We obviously don’t know what the long-term implications will be if we’re talking about this in summer and fall, but certainly for this time being, we’ve made a strong commitment to our staff to support them through this.

The Sun: How does this impact the scheduling for the North Campus expansion project?

Lombardi: At this point, we do not anticipate this having a significant impact on the North Campus residential expansion project, but we will certainly be monitoring that closely. Should any of the contractors who are doing work or anything along those lines have modify, we’ll be keeping a close eye on that. At this time, we have not learned of any of those impacts.

The Sun: From an academic perspective, obviously all this going on can’t be too helpful for people performing well in certain classes. Have you issued any directives to faculty on grading changes or extra accommodations or otherwise any changes that affect … [inaudible]

Nishii: We have been able to extend the drop deadline, the drop and grade change headline, which would have been next week, Tuesday, which is obviously, way too soon. To give students the chance to adjust to the online format, before having to make a decision, and so the new deadline for that is in April — April 21.

The Sun: April 21 will be the new drop deadline without a note on your transcript?

Nishii: That’s right. Just so you know, originally the date we had settled on was April 14. But we continue to work through the various calendars and what this shift is. We had already been planning on extending it to the 14th. But with the shift, it’s more than announced that we were able to figure out that we can actually extend it to April 21. So I just wanted to let you know that there will be a slight difference in what is stated in the email that the students are receiving right now as we speak, and what we will be posting on the FAQ site in subsequent emails that we send tonight, we’ll make sure that this is clear.

The Sun: And then will seven week courses still go on given the changes?

Nishii: Most of them, yes. The ones that can go online with — most of them will be able to. There are a few PE classes that will be canceled but there are also some that will be available remotely.

The Sun: Could you give me an example of that, just out of curiosity?

Nishii: Meditation, yoga, another idea that I heard was outdoor running and jogging, where you’re keeping track of your own running. I’m not probably going to describe this as well as the PE instructor would — and then you’re checking in with the instructor. My understanding that there will also be other PE courses that are available virtually at no cost, because we understand how important exercise is for the well being of our students. Is your main question about four credit classes?

The Sun: now that this drop deadline is extended, how does this impact the spring semester schedule since there’s already a set date that I believe May 17 would be the last finals, but now if you can add more classes, how will this change anything?

Nishii: Yes, it will have an impact on the academic calendar. We are obligated by the Department of Education to complete the whole semester’s worth of coursework, and so we will be posting shortly the revised calendar. We essentially will need to make up for the two weeks that we’re suspending instruction right now.

The Sun: So the semester will end later?

Nishii: That’s right.

The Sun: Do you have a date for that yet?

Nishii: I don’t. Ryan, John, is your sense that this is official, the date?

Lombardi: No, I think it’s still being vetted internally to make sure that we give students the maximum flexibility but still comply with our governing regulations. We also need to give some thought to how that interfaces with the exam schedule. So this is something we’ll resolve as soon as we can, but we have a little bit more thinking to do to make sure we get it as right as we can.

We will be adding a lot of updates to the FAQ page. And I expect a good number to go up today, but we’ll also be sending updates via email probably over the weekend or Monday with more information.

The Sun: Is there any additional mental health hours that are going to be implemented or any walk ins that are implemented for students because we do have a mental health problem on this campus and this has definitely not helped.

McMullen: Yes, certainly, we Cornell Health stands ready to provide the full array of services to our students. We’re working diligently to understand how we can support students who are in the Ithaca area and who will be returning to their permanent residences.

Editor’s Note: The following statement by Siliciano was provided to clarify the University’s comments on the semester’s schedule.

John Siliciano, Deputy Provost, provided the below statement:

 “We are currently exploring the regulatory requirements related to our academic calendar. 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. We will advise students and faculty as soon as any determination is made.”