Incoming students move into North Campus dorms in August 2019. While many Cornellians expressed excitement over the end of "Zoom University," others feel a semester of social distancing regulations and campus restrictions just isn't worth it.

Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Incoming students move into North Campus dorms in August 2019. While many Cornellians expressed excitement over the end of "Zoom University," others feel a semester of social distancing regulations and campus restrictions just isn't worth it.

July 1, 2020

Are Students Excited to Return to Campus This Fall? It Depends Who You Ask

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No forced triples. No crowded common rooms. No packed lecture halls.

President Martha E. Pollack’s long-awaited Tuesday announcement welcomed Cornellians back to campus, but described a Cornell that faintly resembles the one students left in March. Many say they are still thrilled to return to Ithaca in September, eager to book plane tickets and arrange car rides as soon as move-in dates are announced.

But many students were also skeptical of the reopening message, wary of what social distancing will mean in an environment built for socializing. And for some students, the promise of a restricted in-person fall semester isn’t compelling enough to return to Ithaca at all.

Lillian Hong ’22 was excited when she first read the email. After months of waiting for fall semester news, her days at home in Boston finally became numbered.

“I assumed we were going back,” she said, “but it was super great to finally get that information.”

As Anneliese Markus ’23 opened Pollack’s email Tuesday afternoon, she too was relieved to hear that she would come back to New York after spending months at her childhood home in Colorado.

But Markus said the restrictions and regulations were hard to digest, learning she will return to take-out and reservation-only dining halls, online club meetings and likely few in-person classes.

“I’m so desperate to go back,” Markus said. “I just feel like I’ve regressed as a human. I want to be back on campus, but there’s so much that makes me sad. The whole point of school is to be a safe space, and so many people are losing that.”

‘It wasn’t worth it’

Other students are less desperate to return. Jack Sillin ’22 said he decided in May that this fall, he would plan to continue online learning at home in Yarmouth, Maine.

Living in an off-campus apartment wasn’t worth the money while restricted to mostly online activities, Sillin said. Not wanting to risk thousands of dollars, he decided not to sign a lease for next year, figuring classes would continue online in the fall.

Pollack’s email only solidified his decision to stay home. Sillin said he realized the fall semester would exclude some of the experiences he values most: sharing meals with friends, in-person office hours and debating with the Cornell Political Union.

“All those parts of the college experience are ones I value a lot, and they won’t be possible to do responsibly until there’s a vaccine,” Sillin said. “It wasn’t worth it to me to spend about $12,000 on an apartment to be doing virtual office hours, virtual clubs, [and] many of my classes virtually.”

Starbucks on March 20, 2020, after dine-in operations were suspended. After Pollack announced that in-person studies would resume in the fall, many students have wondered what the Ithaca campus will actually look like during a pandemic?

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Starbucks on March 20, after its dine-in operations were suspended. Students will return to a Collegetown this fall that will likely feel different from the place they left in March.

Some students share Sillin’s reasoning: As the Cornell Reddit page swelled with comments about the fall reopening plan, one incoming sophomore wrote that “if the classes I’m taking are largely online I don’t see the point of putting myself through so many restrictions and paying for dining and housing.” Others expressed frustration over tuition, which appears unlikely to budge, whether or not they return to campus.

Another student wrote that with the slew of restrictions, they would rather stay at home — even though the rising senior had previously marked on a survey that they would live in Ithaca if the semester were held online. Now, the student would “happily change” their response.

But factors beyond money and a seven-hour drive to Ithaca are pushing Sillin to remain home this fall. After mulling Pollack’s email and reading the 97-page report, Sillin said he is skeptical students will change their behavior to comply with social distancing measures, even as administrators urge them to resist large gatherings.

The current reopening plan relies heavily on voluntary student compliance. According to Sillin, education campaigns and agreement signatures have an “uninspiring” track record, historically failing to prevent risky behavior such as underage alcohol use.

“Why am I supposed to think that when we try those same tactics in this situation, all of a sudden we’re going to have compliance from everyone?” Sillin said. “It really only takes one frat party for all of these measures to be rendered moot. The bar is really high for changing behavior.”

Sillin isn’t the only student questioning whether their peers will radically adapt their behavior. Even the student-run McGraw Tower Instagram account @bingaleedingalee called on students currently partying in Ithaca to wear masks and respect social distancing, writing in a Tuesday post: “Realize how your actions put cornell employees, immunocompromised folk, your peers at cornell who might not have the same access to masks that you might have, faculty, and families in ithaca, at risk!”

Modeling the fall semester 

Prof. Peter Frazier’s model — which became the basis for the University’s reopening decision — says a residential semester that includes a virus screening program will better protect the public health of the community than a semester held completely online.

But Jeff Pea grad, a Ph.D. student in cellular and molecular medicine who sat on a reopening committee, worries that Cornell placed too much weight on a model — a predictive framework that relies heavily on assumptions — to explain why they decided to welcome students back to campus.

He said the model “attempts at [predicting] a lot of things well” in trying to grasp what campus would look like in the fall. But with so much uncertainty, he said he doesn’t fully agree with the conclusion that a residential semester is safer than keeping campus closed.

“No model is perfect,” Pea said. “I think it shouldn’t be what we’re putting all our weight into. There’s a real concern for students coming back.”

The exodus of thousands of students in March left Cornell's typically bustling campus nearly abandoned. With strict social distancing guidelines planned for Cornell's reopening, it remains to be seen what the new normal will look like.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

The exodus of thousands of students in March left Cornell’s typically bustling campus nearly abandoned. With strict social distancing guidelines planned for the University’s reopening, it remains to be seen what the new normal will look like.

Pea added that Pollack’s reopening announcement was only a starting point for ongoing conversations about campus health and safety, with information gaps to fill, particularly within the graduate student community.

In a Sun letter to the editor, Pea, Rebecca Harrison ’14 grad and Arielle Johnson grad called on Cornell to give all graduate students the option to work remotely without needing to go through medical accommodations or provide documentation. The current recommended policy asks graduate students to apply for remote work through Cornell Student Disability Services or their supervisor.

“I share many other graduate students’ concerns about the absence of attention to our health and safety in President Pollack’s reopening announcement,” Harrison told The Sun in an email on Tuesday. “Graduate student labor is critical for keeping the gears of undergraduate education at Cornell running, but this should not be at the expense of our own needs to be comfortable returning to our classrooms.”

‘Nothing is clear’

Pollack’s email also left many undergraduates eager for more information. How will students physically distance while walking between classes? How will bathrooms operate? How will Cornell monitor travel away from campus?

For Markus, the reopening message left questions about everything from pre-enrollment dates to library policies.

“It’s all so obscure, what’s going on behind the scenes,” Markus said. “Nothing is clear. I still don’t really know what their plan is. I have no sense of what is going to go on next semester.”

Even as the email left students with more questions than answers, many also said they see the value of reopening campus, particularly for those without access to a computer or a safe learning environment at home.

Sillin called reopening campus “necessary” for many students without quiet home study spaces and internet connection, even as he worries those who suffered the most during the remote spring 2020 semester could again face the brunt of a potential second campus shutdown.

Despite so many unknowns, students who are able to return know one thing: They’re grateful to be heading back to campus, even if it won’t feel the same.

“I’m absolutely just going to be glad to be back on campus,” Hong said. “Leaving was very emotional. It made a lot of us realize how much the college experience means to us, and it’s a short four years. Having any of that back in any capacity is better than nothing.”

Hong’s off-campus apartment lease has already started, but more than that, she said she is looking forward to building physical models with CUAir, her project team, and reuniting with her friends.

When she gets back to campus, she first plans to buy a tub of Big Red Bear Tracks.