As many states are beginning to formulate plans to incrementally reopen, many students are questioning whether or not online classes will persist into the fall.

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

As many states are beginning to formulate plans to incrementally reopen, many students are questioning whether or not online classes will persist into the fall.

April 28, 2020

Cornell Professors’ Model Could Help Universities Plan for the Fall 2020 Semester

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While states across the country begin to form plans to gradually reopen businesses, students are questioning whether life will go back to normal in time for the fall semester. Universities  across the country are now coming to grips with the possibility that in-person classes may not resume until 2021.

Meanwhile, other university officials are arguing that this may not be tenable. Brown University president Christina Paxson wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times that returning to campus in the fall is necessary to provide support to both colleges and students.

Despite the strides that online learning has made in the past month, the transition to a virtual campus has not been as seamless for all students. Those that are low income and relied on a campus job to support themselves now must scramble to find alternatives while potentially completing coursework without adequate internet access.

As a result, according to Paxson, another semester online might dissuade students from continuing their education, causing colleges — most of which are dependent on tuition — to take sizable financial hits.

Paxson also pointed out that the towns that house colleges and universities are often highly dependent on the campus. Enduring mass layoffs and hundreds of closed businesses, Ithaca, whose economy is largely driven by its two colleges, is already seeing the devastating consequences of a mass exodus of students.

Cornell employs approximately one-fifth of Tompkins County’s workforce between its faculty, academic professionals and staff.

With the effects of the pandemic proving to be more substantial and drawn out than initially anticipated, the University is facing severe economic woes and is eyeing potential layoffs and furloughs. Currently the Ithaca campus and Cornell Tech anticipates losses between $160 million and $210 million by the end of the fiscal year, figures that could be far worse should campus not reopen in the fall.

But a full return to campus is not without its risks, Paxson cautioned, stating that college life will likely not truly look the same until a vaccine is found.

One question that schools must answer while considering their course of action is what the extent of the risk is facing campus. Two Cornell professors, Ben Cornwell and Kim Weeden, sociology, are aiming to quantify how connected individuals on campus are to provide insight on how a virus could spread should classes resume normally in the fall.

Weeden and Cornwell brought together their expertise in higher education and crises response to model the connections between students utilizing class enrollment data. This analysis was done for the University as a whole in addition to just the College of Arts and Science.

The preprint paper found that campus is tight knit, forming what is known as a small-world network — a network characterized by short path lengths and high degrees of clustering. Short path lengths mean that students are closely connected to one another.

If the student body was represented by a web, with each thread connecting students in the same class, it would only take three threads to connect any individual student to 98 percent of the student body.

Clustering indicates that the grouping of students is not random because students are grouped by their majors and schools: Students of similar majors will share similar schedules.

However, students leave the bubble of their major when taking large introductory classes that are used to fill distribution requirements, PE classes and other large, desirable classes. Weeden points to the University’s two largest classes – BIOEE1540: Introductory Oceanography and HADM4300: Introduction to Wines — as prime examples of this.

“Campuses are places where people come together … for all sorts of reasons. That is part of the charm in a normal time,” Weeden said. “The benefit of a residential university is that there are all of these different ways that you can interact with people who are really quite different than you, ideally.”

While the results of the study are fairly straightforward, it is too soon to know how they will influence University policy going forward. In the current state of affairs, it is difficult to imagine ‘business as usual,’ but the presence of wide scale testing for the virus as well as antibodies could change that reality according to Weeden.

“Our students will have to understand that until a vaccine is developed, campus life will be different,” Paxson wrote in the op-ed.

According to Weeden, some of the creative solutions that could be considered to reduce the risk of an outbreak are making certain courses, especially large introductory classes, online or finding other teaching schedules that minimize the number of people individuals interact with.

One alternative schedule mentioned by Weeden is that used by Colorado College and Cornell College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa. In these schools, students take individual classes in three week blocks for summer classes. This schedule would minimize the number of interactions within courses, as students only take one course at a time. However, Cornell College sports a student population of 1,026 and Colorado College a student body of 2,114– a fraction of Cornell’s 15,043 undergraduates .

“I don’t know if that’s at all viable at a place like Cornell…but it’s that type of thinking that I’m sure our administration is doing as they’re watching the COVID situation develop. There are lots of very creative and very smart minds that are at work on this problem,” Weeden said.

Another potential solution is opening campus while making certain classes — most likely larger, introductory level classes — remote. Weeden and Cornwell’s model could inform which classes would have the greatest impact by going virtual. The University administration, including President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff, are aware of the researchers’ work.

“I would hope that Cornell and other universities use data like this to figure out ‘Are there particular courses that are particularly likely to connect students?’ Under these circumstances maybe those are the types of courses that should go online or not be taught this year,” Weeden said.

Paxson also mentioned this measure as part of a new normal on college campuses. According to Paxson, students and employees may have to begin wearing masks as well as curtailing or altering activities at the center of traditional college life — including sporting events, concerts and parties.

While tackling risk management may seem like a tall task, Weeden and Paxson see the innovative willpower of college campuses as critical to finding safe ways to reopen in the fall.

“Our duty now is to marshal the resources and expertise to make it possible to reopen our campuses, safely, as soon as possible. Our students and our local economies depend on it,” Paxson wrote.

Moving forward, Weeden hopes to conduct similar analyses for other universities that provide the necessary data, which is anonymized class schedules. One specific school Weeden hopes to look into is Tompkins County Community College, because it is near Cornell and community colleges tend to be understudied in the higher education ecosystem.

Cornwell and Weeden would also like to work with epidemiologists in some capacity in order to extend the applicability of the study to current circumstances. The paper makes no claims regarding how a virus could spread among the Cornell network because it is outside of the expertise of the two authors, but they hope the introduction of other collaborators could see the model include more information regarding the spread of a virus.