Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Cornell students will return to campus for the fall semester, President Martha Pollack announced on Tuesday.

June 30, 2020

Martha Pollack’s Email On Fall Semester Plans, Annotated

Print More

Cornellians will come back to Ithaca for the fall 2020 semester, President Martha E. Pollack announced on Tuesday. Students will return home at Thanksgiving and finish the semester online, while the spring semester is scheduled to begin in February. Here’s Pollack’s email, annotated with background information and additional details:

Dear Cornellians,

It was just over three months ago, in the wake of the emerging pandemic, that we needed to swiftly deactivate our campus and shift – mid-semester – to online instruction. Since then, the question I have been asked the most is whether we will reopen for instruction this fall. Today I am writing to tell you that the answer for our Ithaca campus is yes, we plan to have an in-person semester with hybrid instruction and opportunities for remote learning for those who cannot return.

Cornell quickly encouraged students to leave campus in March as the seriousness of the pandemic became clear in the United States and on college campuses around the country. On March 10, the University planned to have coursework resume online following spring break, but on March 13 asked students to leave campus as soon as possible.

Please note that the information in this message applies only to the Ithaca campus and Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. Given the varying impacts and progression of the virus in New York City, Cornell Tech has already announced an online-only fall semester, and Weill Cornell Medicine is developing a hybrid (part online/part in-person) fall semester. In addition, we are in the process of completing our required reopening plan for New York state. That plan will be posted and made available to the entire community once finalized, and it will provide important details beyond those contained in this message.

Phase four of New York’s reopening plan requires institutions of higher education to “develop and submit a plan for reopening and operating for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Today’s decision builds on the incredibly hard work of the faculty, staff, and students who developed the detailed recommendations in the reactivation reports that we have previously released; the input that we received from members of our community in surveys, emails, town halls, and Assembly and Faculty Se­­­­­nate meetings; the thoughtful and extremely valuable insights of our Board of Trustees; the guidance that we have received from New York state; the close, ongoing interactions with local medical authorities at Cayuga Health System and the Tompkins County Health Department; and epidemiological modeling done by Cornell experts.

Pollack convened four committees on April 22, tasked with surveying options for campus reactivation. On June 22, Pollack sent an update with findings from the Teaching Reactivation Options Committee and the Preparation for Online Teaching Committee. The Research and Operations Reactivation released its report in May. The fourth committee was responsible for reviewing the University’s financial situation. The teaching reactivation committee released six possible scenarios in May. Most scenarios considered included both in-person and online elements.

The key consideration in our decision to reopen is public health, and so I would like to take a moment to explain, in particular, the findings of the epidemiological modeling. The analysis, done by Operations Research and Information Engineering Professor Peter Frazier and his team, showed that residential instruction, when coupled with a robust virus screening program of the form we intend to implement, is a better option for protecting the public health of our community than a purely online semester. This counterintuitive result stems from the expectation, borne out in our student surveys, that a large number of our students would choose to return to Ithaca even if we were wholly online; and they would live together and socially interact without the mandatory virus screening tests and behavioral requirements (described below) that Cornell can impose if students are enrolled as part of a residential semester.

Profs. Peter Frazier, Shane Henderson and David Shmoys, operations research and information engineering, produced a 50-page report mathematically modeling coronavirus scenarios for Cornell’s fall semester. The report suggested “that a combination of contact tracing, asymptomatic surveillance, and low initial prevalence (supported through testing students prior to, and upon, returning to campus)” can allow Cornell to effectively control the virus on its campus, as long as asymptomatic surveillance is “sufficiently frequent” and if the University has sufficient quarantine capacity.

The report estimates that 3.6 percent of the campus population (1,254 people) will become infected, and that 0.047 percent (16 people) will require hospitalization.

Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff explained the University’s rationale for reopening in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Frazier’s modeling, the administrators wrote, showed that a university that doesn’t reopen could see worse communal health outcomes. Conversely a university that reopens, modifying its learning environment for social distancing and making plans for screening thousands of students, will “more effectively [safeguard] public health.”

There are, of course, limits to the predictive power of epidemiological modeling, so we will also be carefully monitoring the results of virus screening throughout the semester, and we may need to adjust our actions by, for example, tightening behavioral expectations even further, or even temporarily moving to fully online instruction for a period of time. There is simply no way to completely eliminate risk, whether we are in-person or online; even under the best-case projections, some people will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and some will develop the severe form of the COVID-19 disease. But, again, our analyses show that the number of people infected and/or hospitalized is likely to be markedly lower if we have an in-person, residential semester with the aforementioned screening mechanisms than if we are purely online.

Our commitment, as outlined below, is to implement a broad set of actions to minimize the risk to all members of our community, including putting in place steps to protect faculty, staff, and students with health conditions that require accommodations and special support.

Let me also speak briefly about the many ways in which the fall semester will be different, because it will be different from any semester we’ve experienced before. I am excited by the opportunity to have our students back with us in Ithaca, learning and sharing experiences and engaging as Cornell students. We will be offering hybrid teaching, with some classes online and some in-person. We will be developing and offering different types of co-curricular activities: ones that still allow important interactions among students, but that provide for necessary physical distancing. We will change our approach to dining on campus, offering both take-out options and physically distanced, in-person options using a reservation system. An enormous amount of work is already underway to implement all of these changes and more – changes that are mandated by public health requirements; and the work will continue over the summer so that we are ready to welcome back our students this fall.

Dining halls and eateries have had some time to practice for a fall semester that won’t include packed dining halls and busy buffet lines. A couple dining halls remained open since most students left campus in March, but most central campus eateries closed. When Cornell suspended in-person classes, Cornell Dining ended in-person dining and shifted to takeout only, in line with state regulations. The move away from in-person eating came soon after Cornell Dining started using only disposable plates and silverware and began disinfecting surfaces more regularly.

But in addition to institutional changes, it will be critically important for each of us to adjust our individual behavior. Until there is an effective vaccine for COVID-19, we will live in a world of significantly enhanced community and personal health risks. The university cannot eliminate those risks, even with the best of planning. We can, however, work together to reduce those risks, and I am asking all of our returning Cornell community to adopt a culture of shared responsibility for our safety and well-being. That will necessitate behaving, both on campus and off campus, in ways that at times will be difficult and may feel constrained, but are crucial both for Cornell and for the greater community in which we live. I will be calling on all of us – students (and their parents), faculty, and staff – to help ensure that every person behaves in ways that are responsible and caring.

The weekend following Cornell’s March 13 announcement that students should leave campus as soon as possible, crowds packed Collegetown bars and daytime parties, prompting an email from Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi telling students that “hosting or attending a large party is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing in this moment.”

I hope that you will take the time to read the rest of this message carefully, as it provides further details about many aspects of the fall semester. I recognize that this long-awaited information will spur numerous questions. Next week, we will announce a series of town hall meetings for faculty, staff, students, parents, and members of the broader Ithaca community where we will do our best to answer those questions. We ask for your patience, as not only are many of the details still being worked out, but also we may need to adjust our plans even before the semester starts depending on the progress of the virus. We will, of course, continue to share with you additional details and updates, via email communications as well as through our COVID-19 website, as they become available over the coming weeks as we continue the important work of preparing for the fall.

With the above considerations as our guide, here, then, are the major elements of our plan, organized as follows:

  • 2020-21 Academic Calendar
  • Classes and Academic Activities
  • Virus Screening Program
  • Behavior Modifications
  • Modifications to Residential and Student Life
  • International Students
  • Campus De-Densification (Remote Work/Travel/Visitors)

2020-21 Academic Calendar

Fall Semester

Residential instruction for the Ithaca campus fall semester will begin on Wednesday, September 2. Detailed instructions and other information regarding New Student Orientation and move-in days will be provided over the coming weeks. Move-in will take place over an extended period, to allow for virus screening and initial quarantine of all students.

In order to mitigate the risks of students leaving Ithaca and then returning from many different places, students will return to their permanent residences for Thanksgiving break (the last day of on-campus classes will be Tuesday, November 24) and finish the semester with just a few weeks of classes and final exams online. On-campus accommodations will be available to those students who request and receive waivers to remain in student housing. The final day of the fall term will be on Monday, December 21.

Fall semester courses were initially scheduled to begin Aug. 27, a Thursday. The online post-Thanksgiving schedule means Cornellians will have about two weeks of online classes in December, followed by online final exams.

Spring Semester

Following a longer-than-usual winter break, the spring semester will begin on Tuesday, February 9, 2021 and conclude on Tuesday, May 25. Our plan at this point is to have a full residential spring semester, though we might have to adjust our planning depending on pandemic conditions at the time.

The spring semester was previously scheduled to begin Jan. 26. This change extends winter break by two weeks.


Also pending the progression of the pandemic, Commencement festivities for the Class of ’21 will be held over Memorial Day weekend, Saturday-Sunday, May 29-30, 2021. This is unchanged from our pre-pandemic planning.

Our plan is for December 2020 graduates to celebrate their Commencement with the Class of ’21 on Memorial Day weekend.

And we are planning to have our postponed June 2020 Commencement celebration for the Class of ’20 during a special 5th Reunion weekend, June 3-6, 2021, hosted by young alumni classes of 2015 and 2016.

Pollack promised in March that the Class of 2020 would have an in-person graduation. “This year, while degrees will be granted on time, we will not be able to have the ceremony on Memorial Day weekend. But we will celebrate: we will have a commencement – and it will be a joyous one!” she wrote to soon-to-be graduates.

We will share with you the full 2020-21 academic calendar over the coming weeks.

Classes and Academic Activities

We will be modifying our approach to classroom teaching to offer two primary modalities: all online; and in-person, with remote accessibility into the classroom for students who are off-campus (national or international) or in quarantine. Faculty also will have the option of embracing a hybrid approach where some elements of a course are delivered online and others in-person, or where student cohorts take turns participating remotely versus in-person. Students will be provided with information in advance about the modality of each class and can use that information in selecting their courses.

Cornell’s online course roster, where students will pre-enroll in July, says it is “under revision.” Pre-enroll was previously delayed twice, first by two weeks from its initially scheduled mid-April date, and then to June.

In classrooms, all students will be required to wear face masks and to sit in assigned seats; classroom capacity will be reduced; seats will have appropriate distances between them; and faculty will be required to wear masks or face shields. In-person enrollment caps will be strictly enforced, and student organizations will not be permitted to begin booking classroom space until late September or October.

As noted above, we are committed to putting in place steps to protect students, faculty and staff with health conditions necessitating accommodations and other special support.

Virus Screening Program

A robust virus screening program will be critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in our community. More details around this testing program will be provided over the coming weeks, but the protocol will include screening prior to and upon arrival to campus, and ongoing, frequent screening, with isolation/quarantine/contact tracing as needed. Our goal will be to identify infected individuals and quickly isolate them and those with whom they had close contact. Compliance with the testing program will be an absolute requirement for all students, whether living in on-campus housing or in the local Ithaca community.

Behavior Modifications

There are a number of public health measures that can significantly reduce the spread of infections. It will be important for all members of our campus community to be aware of and follow critical, public health-driven behavioral expectations around the wearing of masks, physical distancing, daily health check-ins, hygiene/cleaning, and social gatherings. While we will be mounting a public health education campaign aimed at reinforcing these expectations among our community, it will be the responsibility of each member of our community to embrace these behavioral requirements. As noted earlier, we must establish a culture of shared responsibility, and each of us must take steps not only to protect ourselves, but also to protect others in the community. All students living on campus and in the Ithaca community will be required to sign a student behavioral agreement.

Cornell is requiring anyone who comes to campus to conduct daily health checks.

Modifications to Residential and Student Life

On-campus housing will be limited to singles and double occupancy rooms, and a shared commitment to health and safety behaviors will be added to residential agreements. Bathrooms will be monitored in order to reduce the number of people sharing. While kitchenettes and lounges will remain open, they will have visible, public health-focused signage and physical distancing markings throughout.

Consistent with New York state guidelines for dining, and to ensure proper physical distancing, all dining halls will provide to-go service, and tables will be properly spaced, with overall sanitation an utmost priority. In-person dining options will be available using a reservation system.

Current guidelines in New York allow restaurants to be open at 50 percent capacity for indoor dining. In Ithaca, the city closed off part of Aurora Street from traffic, to allow restaurants more room for outdoor seating.

The university will be suspending in-person concerts and lectures that involve outside guests. And we will promote innovative approaches to socializing while distancing.

International Students

Our international students have experienced numerous challenges due to their immigration status and location. Sadly, we recognize that because of ongoing travel restrictions and visa processing delays, many international students will not be able to return to Ithaca this fall. To accommodate these students, we have worked with academic partners at more than a dozen locations worldwide to create an on-site, in-residence Study Away option for eligible international students. These international students will live and study at a local campus in their country or region while taking a mix of online and in-person classes. They will share co-curricular activities with their Cornell peers and have access to local facilities and services.

After Cornell encouraged students to return home in March, international students expressed concerns about time differences, visa issues, travel restrictions and housing. The Study Away program includes options for students at 15 overseas universities. Students will pay their regular Cornell tuition and live in residential housing. Coursework and credit requirements will be similar to those for students who study abroad. The application for Study Away opened on June 30. 

The University is hosting a town hall for international students at 8 a.m. EDT on July 9.

Campus De-Densification

The successful implementation of our plan will depend on new approaches aimed at keeping our campus from becoming too densely populated beyond our core community of faculty, staff, and students. To that end:

Remote Work

Even when cleared to return to campus, individuals who can work effectively while remote should continue to do so.

Campus Visitors

Visits to campus by individuals not part of the residential Cornell community are strongly discouraged and will be significantly restricted, at least through the fall semester. Further details regarding a campus visitor policy will be forthcoming. While we cannot hold an in-person Homecoming this year, we will soon be sharing information about a special StayHomecoming virtual celebration. Campus tours for prospective students and their families will continue to be virtual.


All non-essential business travel will be prohibited. We will be developing detailed guidance to assist the planning of personal and essential business travelers, particularly on steps to be taken upon their return to campus. Travel is also likely to continue to be highly regulated by New York state. The university will work to support the local quarantine requirements imposed by the state on travelers from states with high infection rates, including students who will be arriving for the fall semester.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s June 25 executive order requires travelers from the following states to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in New York: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

In one of the first messages that I sent to the Cornell community about this pandemic, I likened our situation to a bad hand of bridge: We can’t change the hand we’ve been dealt, but we can decide how to play that hand. I believe that our plan, informed by our reopening committees and based on scientific analysis, is the best possible way to play the hand this pandemic has dealt us. But we have to play it together: All of us will need to be vigilant, and to make decisions about our activities each day that are rooted in shared concern for community well-being. Our experiences over the coming months will also depend, in large measure, on the patience and kindness with which we treat each other and ourselves. The year ahead will be different, it will be difficult, but it will, I believe, still be a year to treasure – a year of exploration and discovery, a year of friendship, and of growth. I look forward with all of you to the return of our students, and to finding new ways to learn, teach, and move forward – despite the challenges – together.



“Right now, we’ve all been dealt a bad hand — and we have to play it, and play it to the best of our abilities,” Pollack wrote on March 17, encouraging Cornellians with an extended metaphor about bridge. “So many of our plans have been disrupted, leaving us frustrated and disappointed. But we can rise to meet this challenge, just as previous generations of Cornellians have when they faced huge and unexpected challenges, whether it was a World War, or the Great Depression, or the scourge of AIDS.”

Entering her fourth full year at Cornell, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge of Pollack’s presidency, one that has included dealing with racist incidents like the assault of a Black student during the fall 2017 semester, which led to the creation of a task force on “campus climate,” responding to the Trump administration’s travel bans and leading Cornell during a nationwide reckoning on race.