As the curtain drops on a turbulent spring semester, members of the Cornell community have begun to speculate over the possibility and logistical implications of a socially distanced fall semester.
President Martha E. Pollack’s order that students leave Cornell morphed Ithaca’s campus from a vivacious environment to a barren scene in a matter of days. In-person lectures shifted online, study groups and lunch meetings had to halt and social gatherings were replaced by Zoom conferences and Facetime calls.
While many Cornellians have adapted to college life away from Ithaca, it is still unknown whether or not students will be permitted to return in August.
The administration is working towards analyzing the feasibility of reopening its doors as states gradually lift stay-at-home orders. However, an official decision by the Cornell administration is not expected before the end of June.
Matthew Rosenthal ’22 voiced his understanding of the need for serious precautions given the severity of the pandemic but lamented the possibility of another semester from home.
“I think it’s very possible that we’ll be online [in the fall] and it’s unfortunate since there’s a big difference in student attention and motivation levels between on-campus and remote learning,” Rosenthal said. “At school, I’m fully engaged with my classes and professors but now, I feel disconnected.”
Pollack has attempted to keep the Cornell community informed through her multiple updates throughout the past two months. In an April 22 email, Pollack announced four new COVID-19 response committees that will develop a course of action for the fall semester.
“We are moving forward into the second phase of our COVID-19 response with the planning and decisions that will enable us to reactivate our campus,” Pollack said.
The Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options, spearheaded by Provost Michael Kotlifoff, will assess a number of options for the fall with the ultimate objective of welcoming students back for in-person instruction.
Upon request for a comment, the administration referred The Sun to Cornell’s COVID-19 response website.
But with little information available, undergraduates reported that they were considering taking a leave of absence if the fall semester is carried out online. Lily Elkwood ’22 told The Sun that the quality of her education and the loss of on-campus experiences would be at the forefront of such a decision.
“I’m still not sure what my plans are, but having to choose between temporarily receiving a subpar education or being a semester behind is a difficult decision,” Elkwood said. “The social implications are damning as well. One can argue that the on-campus experiences of college are just as elemental to our education.”
Conrad Freire ’22 echoed Elkwood’s remarks.
“I never expected to be taking classes at home and I don’t think the caliber of the education I receive on-campus and off are comparable,” Freire said. “Life outside of the classroom is another major reason why I chose Cornell and if I need to take some time off, that’s what I’ll do.”
Incoming freshman Ishan Shah ’24 said that he is considering deferring his enrollment until next year in order to avoid losing any time in Ithaca. He anticipates significant obstacles as a first year student if the semester is remote.
“I’d most likely take a year off and wait for the true college experience I have always dreamt of. I don’t think what I’m looking for can be replicated online,” Shah said.
Bhav Patel ’24, an early decision admit, said he is looking forward to making new connections, participating in orientation events and adapting to life at Cornell on campus. But ultimately, he thinks he will take classes in the fall regardless of class formats.
“I already lost the last six months of my senior year of high school and I would hate to lose my first semester of college as well,” Patel said. “I’m probably going to continue with online classes but the decision Cornell takes regarding fall semester tuition will greatly impact my thought process.”
Cornell has not released any statements about the potential of future tuition discounts, a position that concerns students, including Lance Rombro ’23, should the next semester once again be virtual.
“If I’m being honest, I don’t think the value of online learning justifies the exorbitant price of Cornell’s tuition,” Rombro said. “There is something to be said of the traditional classroom setting, the resources and opportunities students can find on campus. All of that is lost with virtual learning.”
Prof. Paul Davis, human resource studies, agreed that virtual instruction cannot fully replicate the classroom experience but he expressed optimism about the prospect of online classes.
“A remote fall semester will bring many of the same issues we’re facing now, but we’ve all had some experience with the online environment so professors will be able to design courses around that format,” Davis said. “I would expect the experience for students and instructors will be better in many ways.”
The scenarios that could play out in the coming months are vast in numbers and still widely tentative. But as spring classes near their end, current and newly admitted students, faculty and staff must patiently wait until June while they speculate whether this semester’s shift to online classes and remote work will bleed into the upcoming school year.
“I definitely miss the classroom dynamic and the instant feedback you get from in-person instruction. I teach large classes, and it’s much harder to get a sense over Zoom where my lectures are resonating and where I need to slow down or make adjustments,” Davis said. “Also, my jokes are failing even harder than normal.”
Cornell has already announced that its summer session will take place remotely and pushed back the fall 2020 class pre-enrollment period from April to June. Other Ivy League Universities have taken similar steps by canceling summer sessions, but none have reached a definitive decision on the fall semester.
To check out other Ivies’ summer and fall semester plans, click here.