Ashley He / Sun Staff Photographer

The Faculty Senate at its last in-person meeting before students were sent home. Many faculty members expressed support for a completely online fall semester during the Wednesday Faculty Senate meeting.

May 30, 2020

Cornell Grapples With Logistical Concerns, Faculty Worries in Deciding to Reopen

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While students want to be on campus for the fall, many faculty say in-person teaching poses a serious health risk.

“I have a feeling that what we (as faculty) feel safe and appropriate for public health will juxtapose with what students want,” one anonymous user wrote on the Faculty Senate web page. “Teaching faculty should not be placed in an unsafe or uncomfortable position by being forced to teach in person.”

As Cornell promised to make a decision on the upcoming fall semester by the end of June, the six possible scenarios its teaching reactivation committee touted have elicited mixed reactions, with many students, faculty and parents raising logistical concerns.

Many students and parents expressed a need to maximize time on campus and make connections with others, saying that the benefits of a Cornell education would be lost if online for another semester

The webpage has 856 comments from students, faculty and parents as of Saturday afternoon, which Dean of Faculty Charlie Van Loan said was unusual at a Wednesday Faculty Senate meeting.

At the meeting, many faculty members were mostly in favor of either a completely online fall semester, or a fall semester similar to the University of Notre Dame — starting in-person instruction two weeks early, and wrapping the whole semester by Thanksgiving break. In this scenario, classes would start Aug. 12 instead of Aug. 27.

“I would argue that we could follow the Notre Dame model,” said Prof. Carl Franck, physics. “The hardest thing I could say is that we had to change our plans a couple of times [in the spring] because it’s totally fair that the administration had to respond to the changing circumstances.”

Faculty members were afraid that in-person instruction could be dangerous for them. Nearly one-third of Cornell’s faculty are over the age of 60, according to Van Loan.

“Generally, I lean toward Option 0, that’s the only one that seems reasonable,” said Prof. Joanie Mackowski, English. “Ethically, it’s not inviting people into a situation where they might lose their lives.”

Due to the popularity of an early fall semester, Van Loan — who is also a member of the teaching reactivation committeeadded the option to the Faculty Senate website on Thursday. Unlike the other options, this scenario does not account for the spring semester.

In almost every single scenario — except for Option 0, in which the whole academic year is online — students are expected to return home by Thanksgiving break in an attempt to de-densify campus during flu season.

Dean of Faculty Charlie Van Loan presented the six scenarios the teaching reactivation committee is looking into for the fall 2020 semester.

Meghna Maharishi / Sun Assistant Managing Editor

Dean of Faculty Charlie Van Loan presented the six scenarios the teaching reactivation committee is looking into for the fall 2020 semester.

While six options mention scenarios for the spring, Van Loan said these scenarios were similar to “placeholders” for the academic calendar that are still subject to change, depending on the fall semester.

Another major idea raised at the meeting was letting students come to campus in subsets. Van Loan struck down the idea, saying there are too many obstacles with the way courses are designed and the University’s housing system.

Due to these issues, it appears as if the University would not implement a phased opening with subsets of students if it reopens campus in the fall.

“In terms of inviting subsets, it’s been studied, but it’s extremely complicated,” Van Loan said at the meeting. “These things raise equity issues, you can shut down the dorms, but who can afford living in Collegetown? Well, the rich students and so on.”

After the committee released the six scenarios, faculty members received an email from Provost Michael Kotlikoff that outlined the protocols the University would implement if it were to hold in-person classes in the fall.

Everyone would be required to wear masks, get tested before returning to campus in the fall and regularly get retested, according to the May 27 email. Anyone who is in a high risk category will be highly advised not to attend in-person classes, and lectures with more than 50 students would need “readaptations,” Kotlikoff added in the email.

On-campus dining halls and food facilities would be limited to take-out only, with reservation systems for dining halls that enforce physical distancing. Extracurricular activities would be virtual and any in-person event needs to be pre-registered and must adhere to current health guidelines, the email read.

The University has yet to reach an assessment on if it is even possible to hold a residential semester in the fall, according to Kotlikoff. It is nearly impossible for the University to enforce any physical distancing off-campus — making it possible for off-campus parties and social events to still take place, Van Loan said.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa Nishii and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi emailed a survey on Friday to students, asking for their input on the upcoming semester.

The survey asks students questions about their willingness to enroll in classes if the semester is completely remote and their housing arrangements for the upcoming semester. Also, the survey includes questions on internet accessibility and access to quiet study spaces at home.

In a May 28 email to the Cornell community, President Martha E. Pollack asked that “everyone make it a priority to respond to these surveys.”

Cornell already sent a survey to international students on May 18 to gauge if they would be interested in taking classes at a partner university in their home country.

Van Loan said that the University is considering “all options” for reopening, but it remains unclear if Cornell leans toward reopening campus for the fall or going completely online.

“It is important for all of us to recognize that, as much as we all crave certainty, the path of this virus is unpredictable and the best way to reopen is not yet clear,” Pollack said in the email.

Neighboring institutions like Ithaca College, Syracuse University and Binghamton University have already announced their intent to reopen campus in the fall.

Cornell most likely will announce a decision by July 1, Van Loan said. While the research reactivation committee already released its findings, all other committees have until June 15 to make recommendations to Pollack. Even then, it will most likely take one to two weeks for the administration to reach a decision, Van Loan added. Other Ivy League schools also said that they would not reach a decision until the end of June or early July.

Other than personal safety, Cornell has been forced to reckon with the financial impact of staying online. In an April 22 email, Pollack said the University could lose hundreds of millions of dollars if it does not open in the fall.

“I’ve never been on a committee where life, death and hundreds of millions of dollars are all wrapped up in a gigantic setting,” Van Loan said.