In late April, President Martha E. Pollack announced the creation of four planning committees to study Cornell’s options for resuming the fall 2020 semester. Two months later, the final two committees — the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Operations and the Committee on Preparation for Online Teaching — finally released their reports to the public.
Since in-person instruction ended in mid-March, students and faculty have anxiously awaited an announcement on the fate of the fall semester, a decision that is now not expected to arrive until early July. However, the reports — which “provide a clear sense of the considerations that will go into final decisions about whether … we are able to invite our students back to Ithaca,” Pollack wrote in a Monday afternoon email — offer the most comprehensive look yet at what college in the era of COVID-19 may entail.
Echoing the decisions of Ithaca College, Syracuse University and many others, the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Operations’ 97-page report largely signalled support for a resumption of campus learning — predicting that online teaching would actually cause more cases than on-campus instruction, under the expectation that many would return to Ithaca regardless of the type of delivery.
But even if the days of “Zoom University” end up drawing to a close, it is clear that students will likely be returning to a campus far different than the one they left. The report covered a host of complicated questions, including how to implement testing and contact tracing, protecting vulnerable Cornellians and enforcing physical distancing requirements.
For instance, the committee recommended requiring online daily health assessments, seasonal influenza immunizations and enforcing a policy that requires every person on campus have a face mask “readily available” while outdoors to put on when “it is NOT feasible to maintain physical/social distancing measures.” While indoors, the rule mandates that face-coverings be worn at all times in shared settings, such as elevators and common areas in residential halls.
The report also supported implementing large-scale testing as students return to campus — which would take place either remotely, if feasible, or on campus — as well as the completion of a required educational module about expectations for behavior before a student’s NetID and key card are fully reactivated.
In academic settings, students will be required to wear face masks and sit six feet apart from one another in assigned seats. The committee calculated that this rule would reduce classroom capacity to 13 to 24 percent, a significant reduction that could necessitate adding additional classrooms, course times and stricter enrollment policies.
The committee recommended eliminating quads and triples and continuing take-out dining services, along with spaced out tables and reservations required for in-person dining. According to the report, the effort to de-densify dorms could result in the loss of 248 beds, but “may not actually displace many students, if some students opt not to participate in residential instruction.”
In order to enforce these guidelines, the committee advised establishing a system of “progressive sanctions” for violations, beginning with educating the non-complying student, and escalating to the Office of the Judicial Administrator if the student repeatedly violates policies. The report also suggested implementing a text-based tip-line to report any social distancing violations.
The committee outlined three broad strategies for campus reactivation, each consisting of different combinations of its recommendations to emphasize different containment philosophies.
The first strategy stressed proactively identifying and quickly containing COVID-19, working to restrict spread with regular testing and implementing isolation and contact tracing policies in partnership with the Tompkins County Health Department.
The second strategy focused on emphasizing physical distancing, face coverings and daily check-ins. This strategy also recommends a “slightly delayed start to the fall term” to give the University more time to prepare.
The final strategy honed in on using surveillance to dynamically shape Cornell’s response, proposing that the University implement different levels of intervention depending on how many individuals appear to be testing positive for coronavirus.
Early stage interventions include “further education of the community on physical distancing requirements, and better enforcement of those requirements,” while middle stage interventions could include more regular check-ins for faculty and students. In the worst-case scenario, late stage interventions might involve campus-wide quarantine and a ban on travel.
While the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Operations considered how campus might reopen, the Committee on Preparation for Online Teaching released a 47-page report that contemplates another semester of virtual learning.
The committee recommended that all courses support non-synchronous, remote options with videos of course content made available online. In response to many students’ experience that online instruction increased workload in the spring semester, the committee stressed that all instructors should ensure that the time commitment for online work is equivalent to that of an in-person course.
While the committee as a whole suggested that the primary grading policy remain letter grades, the report also noted that student members of the committee pushed for universal S/U grading.
To increase the effectiveness of online instruction, the committee recommended that the Center for Teaching Innovation play a larger role in helping faculty transition their courses online. It also suggested that technology costs be factored into financial aid packages, such as the need for data plans or Wi-Fi hotspots.
For international students, the committee recommended that residential options be established in locations where Cornell has a significant number of students and that time zones be considered when assigning discussion sections and exam times.
Pollack sent an email to the Cornell community shortly after the reports were released, extending her thanks to the members of the committees and encouraging Cornellians to “read the reports carefully.” She also outlined the next steps in developing Cornell’s fall plan, which include discussions with the Board of Trustees and submitting a plan to New York State for review.
Correction, June 23, 10:35 a.m.: A previous version of this story said that the committee’s proposal to require students to sit six feet apart would reduce “classroom capacity by 13 to 24 percent.” In fact, the proposal would reduce capacity to that range, a significantly larger reduction. It has since been updated.