Cornellians lounged from hammocks that swooped between Libe Slope trees on Monday, as they soaked up rare March 60 degree weather. Engineers scribbled out problem sets from beneath Arts Quad tree trunks in the middle of prelim season. Student Assembly candidates squared off in an evening debate. Snow piles that collected on the edges of walkways were thawing, and “No Winter Maintenance” signs began to disappear from campus.
Monday’s weather brought scenes from an end-of-semester May afternoon, as students emerged from winter hibernation.
But Tuesday’s news brought what felt like the semester’s end.
President Martha E. Pollack’s Tuesday email sent shock waves into student and faculty inboxes, as Cornell became the latest university to slash in-person classes and urge students to return to their permanent residencies after spring break, amid the novel coronavirus outbreak that had not yet touched Tompkins County.
Students screamed and sobbed in shock: They had two months, then two weeks.
The novel coronavirus that had already shuttered University of Washington and Stanford University appeared as though it would spare a New York university tucked between gorges and trees — even after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) declared a state of emergency that previous Saturday.
Students who had previously fretted about their spring break plans now grappled with a new reality: What would Zoom discussion sections look like? How would architecture students construct physical models online? Would seniors who missed their swim tests freshman year still have to complete the requirement?
Commencement also became a question mark for seniors who learned they would squeeze senior spring into a remaining two weeks. First-year students cleared the Bear Necessities shelves on Tuesday evening and frantically emptied out their Big Red Bucks — just as a portion of them entered the housing lottery and selected next year’s on-campus dorms at the beginning of the week.
A slew of events dissolved, from Cornell Fashion Collective to a cappella concerts, after months of rehearsals and planning. Spring S.A. elections were pushed to the fall semester, as students’ minds drifted away from the present and into looming travel plans and online courses.
Wednesday brought some of the first recorded Canvas lectures and piloted Zoom classes, as lecture halls stood vacant, without clanging laptops and filled seats. Prelims slated for the week became a next-week problem; other professors scrapped exams altogether and wondered how they would restructure their curriculums. Those enrolled in Computer Science 1110: Introduction to Computing Using Python completed a 1.5 hour exam on Tuesday, writing out code the same evening their student-centered world came crashing down.
Campus started to feel more panicked, more sanitized. Hand sanitizer stations sprang up in library entrances, the Willard Straight Hall lobby and academic halls. Bottles of Purell stood adjacent to cash registers, sharing counters with gift cards at The Cornell Store. Libe Cafe and Temple of Zeus baristas brewed espresso drinks and swiped student IDs wearing gloves.
As new health guidelines went into effect on Wednesday, croissants and bagels that filled the Libe Cafe display case were covered in plastic wrap. Coffee carafes slid behind cafe counters as the University eliminated self-service dining and eateries exchanged reusable mugs for their single-use counterparts.
Students ate their dining hall meals on paper plates and sipped Bubly from plastic cups as ceramic ones vacated shelves — before the University moved to take-out only dining the following Monday. Some dining hall salad bars stood empty, while scoop-your-own Dairy Bar ice cream disappeared and Straight from the Market shuttered completely, as the eatery relies heavily on self-service.
Other eateries and campus facilities scrapped ID and credit card swiping altogether, asking students who entered dining halls to read out their ID numbers or punch in the codes. Cornellians who headed to the gym for a regular treadmill sprint or to ease the turmoil of a shortened semester did so for some of their last times: All gyms closed on Monday.
As professors devised online lesson plans and students booked flights out of Ithaca for the days preceding spring break, the semester then completely dropped from beneath their feet: Another University email crashed into their inboxes. On Friday, all classes were suspended, as Pollack urged all students to return home as soon as possible.
Students had two months, then two weeks, then nothing.
The semester was upended as COVID-19 cases reached into the hundreds in New York State. Students cried in library reading rooms and called their families; others shouted for joy as Cornell called for class cancellations. Many students piled into storage service centers, awaiting boxes to pack up and flee campus.
On Saturday, swarms of first-year students emerged from Robert Purcell Community Center with flattened storage boxes as they prepared to vacate campus; West Campus residents did the same. International students booked and rebooked flights as they ticked against the clock of increasing border closures.
Moving carts flooded North Campus on Saturday as freshmen packed their belongings into cars and waved goodbye to their abbreviated first year of college. First-year residence halls became quieter and quieter by Sunday: Fewer bathroom doors slammed; fewer students occupied their low rise common rooms. Piles of leftover snacks remained in Donlon Hall kitchens with few lingering students left to eat them.
As recently as last Monday, students were in class learning about microbiology and information science and psychology. They were sipping coffee in Libe, hanging out in common rooms and apartments, unaware that Cornell would be the next school to shutter as COVID-19 works its way into seemingly isolated corners of the world.