March 15, 2020

EDITORIAL: Administrators Took a Shaky First Step. Walk the Walk, Cornell.

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The University’s decision to suspend classes and accelerate the timeline for Ithaca departure is jarring.

In the few days since President Martha Pollack’s Tuesday announcement, many students booked travel based on the presumed knowledge that they would not be ushered off campus until March 28.

Professors have worked with students assuming that they had some in-person communication to make the transition to online learning as smooth as possible.

Now, students have been forced to amend their travel plans again. Entire course syllabi have been destroyed and the academic merit of the current Cornell semester has been called into question.

Pollack’s recent decision could not have been an easy one to make: Cornell is as susceptible to the coronavirus as any other community, and  given that many in Ithaca live in extremely close quarters, our campus is certainly an ideal place for an outbreak. And as whole countries shutter, is it strange that our Cornell might have to join them too.

In her announcement, Pollack stressed that the University recognizes “the significant stress that students are under currently, making classroom learning difficult.” However, it is without question that these past weeks, not just days, were detrimental to the grades of some students. Students watched the virus — blissfully ignored by those here — impact their families and friends abroad. And now, as the threat comes home with us, if Cornell hopes to lessen the mental burden of its students, it must consider an alternative academic end to the semester. Like Princeton University, we, too, urge the University to follow the courageous and student-centered decisions of Smith College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to espouse mandatory pass/fail and pass/no record semesters.

Despite the enormous shock caused by the twists in policy from Day Hall to D.C., Cornell’s administration must be praised for some of its actions. According to a message from Vice President Ryan Lombardi, the University has secured Ithaca storage for students in on-campus housing at no additional cost and has promised a rebate on housing and dining. Further, the decision to extend the drop and S/U deadline is commendable and will certainly alleviate some student stress.

But these few accommodations do not nearly make up for the accelerated timeline; they do not compensate students who hear that their family is ill or dying; they do not compensate the students who will undoubtedly contract the virus; they do not compensate the students with limited internet access, who must take care of their families when their siblings are home from school and their parents must work.

We acknowledge that this could pinch those who sought this semester as an opportunity to lift their GPA; as pre-professionals we know that this could be of concern. But a special mark on the transcript, and the knowledge that no corner of daily life has escaped the contagion on this virus, we are confident that future employers and admissions officers will be understanding. As life remains unprecedented, Cornell can create one vestige of certainty for its students.

But students, too, are fostering more uncertainty and fear.

One unfortunate side effect of the email blasts, non-stop push notifications and repeated declarations of “states of emergency” is an apocalyptic emotion settling in. Rather than following the advice of the educated and informed, students on and off campus are choosing to congregate beyond coping, to expose each other and their own selves to increased risk. Cornell administrators took an unprecedented step to pull the fire alarm and evacuate the school. Now, students must heed the warning.

Administrators can help; broadcast the available telemedicine resources louder, suggest things for students to do while “social distancing” besides just pack up from the place they love and watch time they’ve coveted for three years tick by.

Students, stay strong. Try to make the best of this nightmare. Go and be with your families, if you can. And if you intend to stay in Ithaca, be family for each other.

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.