May 1, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Needs to Postpone the Fall Semester

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I want to shed some light on fall semester plans from a student’s perspective. As an incoming senior, this is my very last year and marks the culmination of my college experience. So, before we consider the possibility of making fall online, I would like to express some of my concerns.

Firstly, having online classes will not be helpful to anyone. The actual quality of what we are learning has decreased significantly. Besides the usual problems — the wifi not connecting, the internet crashing, Zoom lagging during lectures, difficult group coordination, inefficient office hours (through no fault of TAs or professors) — we are actually missing out on a great deal of material. As a computer science major, this online change should affect me the least. Even so, we now can’t adequately complete our final labs for classes due to the lack of access to equipment. Many classes are cutting down on assignments and forgoing major projects since we simply do not have the resources to complete them from home. I know professors have done a really great job transitioning online in such short notice given the circumstances; however, despite staff’s extraordinarily accommodating and understanding efforts, we are not learning as much as before and simply put, not benefiting from this incomplete and fragmented educational experience.

It is not only classroom education that is suffering. A large part of college is the learning experience that occurs outside the classrooms when we get to interact with other students and faculty in person. Cornell boasts one of the most diverse student populations and prides itself on its progressive values and inclusivity. However, we cannot reap the benefits of these qualities if we cannot actually interact face-to-face with other students, and utilize the opportunity to learn from individual, unique backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.

We do not get to take part in any on-campus activities as we did before. Project teams have been forced to limit, or even stop, their work, clubs are hardly running and there are no extracurriculars that we can be a part of. There is no student community that we can explore or engage in when we are all sent home to be kept away. For these last weeks of the semester, we have been completely bereft of social engagement. While this action was necessary for the safety of everyone, the resulting seclusion is also harmful. Social engagement is vital to mental health and I am afraid of the potential repercussions continued online classes could have.

We are tuition-paying students who did not pay to take classes on a computer over Zoom in the isolation of our homes. We could have easily learned the same things over Coursera or multiple other online platforms that already exist. We are justifying paying so much money for tuition because we recognize the value of the education that we get outside of the classrooms. We are paying money on the basis, and under the assumption that we are going to get the education that was advertised and promised to us. We are paying money for a promise that is not being delivered.

I know this situation has not solely caused monetary strain upon students and their families; it has also financially harmed the University and the surrounding Ithaca community. Since Cornell can’t operate as before, it has taken a hit on revenue. So, it is also in the University’s best interest to try to return to the status quo as swiftly as possible. I completely understand that Cornell doesn’t want to put anyone at risk or be the reason students, faculty or staff fall ill. But, are there other options that we can explore rather than going remote?

I would like to propose postponing the start date of the fall semester — should the status of an on-campus fall semester be in jeopardy — to October or later. If we cut an unnecessarily long winter break by two weeks, and push the spring semester to end late May, we could easily adjust the timeline for the academic year without changing the number of days per semester. At least the university’s administration won’t have to rush into a decision about fall being remote or not. In fact, I hope an official decision can be made later rather than sooner as many experts are saying that America will see cases decrease, and herald significant improvement come the end of May and mid-July. In any case, whether or not that is true, can we postpone making a decision until late summer when we can know for sure? Until we can accurately quantify the trend of the epidemic? I want to applaud the University for postponing the decision until the committees are able to come to conclusions and thoroughly explore all options. But should the resolution be remote learning, can we postpone the ultimate decision until, potentially, late July, in the event that America commences recovery at a rapid pace?

Should there still be a move toward remote learning, I would definitely want to know how much tuition will be refunded. I personally do not see value in learning over a webcam and would much rather take a year off/leave of absence and work instead. I know for a fact that many of my friends are considering doing the same should the fall semester be online with little to no refunded tuition provided.

I am an incoming senior. This is my last year of academic learning. My last year to stay on Cornell’s beautiful campus and do all the things I haven’t yet had the chance to. For many graduating seniors, this is also the time for on-campus networking and job recruitment. But in addition to the uncertainties of post-graduation, incoming Seniors are also stressed over what senior year will look like.

I am not trying to downplay the risk of this epidemic. I appreciate Cornell’s hard work and swift action in this unprecedented time. I understand that whatever is being done is for the benefit of everyone. I simply want to express that should Cornell University decide to transfer learning online again — this time, potentially, for an entire semester — the consequences will be widespread and drastic.

After all, if the fall semester can go remote due to safety concerns, what is preventing the spring semester to follow suit if a vaccine is still not discovered?

The class of 2020’s senior year was marred by this epidemic. Will the class of 2021 go through the same thing? Will the joy of senior year once again be taken? Hopefully not. Not if Cornell takes the necessary steps to mitigate this.

Deepti Talesra is a junior in the College of Engineering. Comments may be sent to Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.