Cornell only has one option for the fall 2020 semester: to cancel it and replace it with a summer term in 2021.
In-person instruction, even if we somehow manage to sit six feet apart from one another in lecture, would undo the positive, decisive action that the University took this semester to ensure our community’s safety. It is impossible, given what we know about this virus, to guarantee the safety of our community in the fall. Even the most optimistic of our public health experts predict that this virus will return after its initial curve “flattens.” This is already happening in China and Singapore, amongst others, both of which enforced much stricter lockdowns than the United States. Our Ithaca community is simply too remote and its health care system too tenuous for us to take this risk.
While the transition to our new online learning reality, by all accounts, has been as smooth as it could have been, an entirely online semester is simply not a viable solution moving forward. The inequities — particularly of economic status and race — that have been highlighted and exacerbated in the wake of this crisis would only be amplified during an entire semester of online classes. The University would simply not be living up to its motto of “Any Person, Any Study” were it to conduct classes virtually in the fall.
While the administration was able to justify adopting a normal grading scheme in the current, fully online semester, the grading debates of a few weeks ago will inevitably crop up again. No matter what decision the University makes, it will, again, be to the advantage of some students and to the detriment of others. This is a particularly salient point for those of us seeking to attend graduate school or to enter the job market next year, who simply cannot afford a compromised semester.
Architects, designers and scientists, many of whom have already had to sacrifice their significant investments into Cornell’s in-person facilities this semester, would again be deprived of the opportunity to make full use of them. Debates around prorated tuition would surge, and international students such as myself — currently contending with extreme time zone differences in order to fulfill our academic obligations — would think twice before even enrolling.
Indeed, perhaps most significantly from the University’s perspective, the cost of a Cornell education is simply not worth it when classes are conducted virtually. The value of being in Ithaca — in classrooms, on quads, in Zeus — can never be matched by even the most efficient of online learning curricula. If a significant proportion of the student body chooses not to enroll in the Fall, the school would lose valuable revenue from the tuition they would forego, leaving them in a difficult financial situation amidst what is looking like the worst economic recession of our collective lifetimes.
The administration’s most equitable, most financially viable and most responsible action would be to cancel the Fall 2020 semester all together, and replace it with a Summer 2021 semester with full course offerings. Freshman would be able to have a proper introduction to Cornell, sophomores and juniors would not lose a valuable semester of in-person learning and what better way for seniors to end our time in Ithaca than a summer on the Hill?
This would only require bringing forward the start date of the spring term by a few weeks, keeping other holidays, and bringing the start of the traditional summer session forward. With a few other minor adjustments, the University would be able to fit in two three-and-a-half month semesters in before the fall 2021 semester.
Furthermore, assuring our local businesses that they will have a full campus to serve in the summer of 2021 would allow them to plan long term, and reinject life into a local economy that has already been devastated by our mass exodus last month. Graduate school entry in fall 2021 would not be affected, and those of us who will be entering an already bleak job market will be grateful for the additional time to look for opportunities. Cornell students who rely on their on-campus jobs for their own expenses would also be able to earn the same income they would have under normal circumstances.
Perhaps most importantly, the promise of a return to some normalcy amidst this life-changing event would give us students a much-needed lift as we all contend with our new realities.
Akhil Mithal is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.