Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Cornell Health provides various mental health services, including the Counseling and Psychological Services office.

July 1, 2020

‘We Can Beat the Models’: Cornell, Cayuga Health Sketch Out Safe Fall Reopening

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Though there will be no more sneaking into the back of a classroom late for lecture or horror stories about the freshman-year triple, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack announced a sweeping health and mitigation plan that will let students return to Ithaca this fall.

The plan involves mandatory testing, daily check-ins and distancing updates to most areas of campus life — praised as a “thorough, granular” approach by Dr. Martin Stallone, president and CEO of Cayuga Medical Center and Cayuga Health System.

“Reopening is a worthy goal, though not without risk,” Stallone said; he believes Cornell has spared no effort in working with medical centers, local businesses and academics to implement best practices.

Before the announcement, highly-circulated models by Cornell’s own professors promised an unavoidable uptick in cases but with conflicting figures — increased hospitalizations even with testing, or a rampant spread if classes were to resume. Conversely, models run by Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, cited in Pollack’s email found that keeping campus closed would present an even bigger threat.

Meanwhile, students who were displaced in March were flooding back to campus and the warm Ithaca summer. Cell phone mobility data shows increasing mobility and density in Tompkins County in May and June, while Collegetown bars are beginning to reopen.

In the face of this picture, Pollack wrote that reopening means the University can enforce strict health guidelines for the students that would fill Collegetown and Ithaca regardless of a return to on-campus learning.

“We can beat the models,” Stallone said. “We can make them not be true by being vigilant.”

Every student returning to Ithaca will be tested before or after they arrive, and will be required to quarantine post-travel. All people on campus must comply with ongoing testing and speedy isolation for those that test positive and their close contacts. Masks and distancing are strongly encouraged; Cornell will also collect signed behavioral agreements from every member of the student body.

Ithaca is aided by both a relatively small and concentrated population, Stallone said, and limiting movement in and out of the area is a key aspect of the health plans. Once students leave for Thanksgiving break, most won’t return until the spring term begins on Feb. 9.

Through testing and strict procedure, Stallone said, the University’s plan can keep COVID-19 numbers low for its campus, the two other local student bodies and the surrounding area. Tompkins County’s coronavirus hospitalizations currently stand at zero after months of closures and sheltering in place.http://


“Although I can’t say we’ll stay at zero, we are starting from an excellent position,” Stallone said.

Even past initial testing, running a college campus during a pandemic presents unique challenges.

The move-in process — typically a busy, tightly-run hive of students, parents and residential staff — has been extended, and Cornell has eliminated the dreaded freshman triple in the name of distancing. A later start date will allow for mandatory virus screenings and a post-travel quarantine.

A mix of online and in-person classes — which will allow distance learning via Zoom and recorded lectures — will run from Sept. 2 to Nov. 24, with the last month of instruction and exams online. Though students will be informed about the teaching set-up of their classes ahead of enrollment, the professors tasked with upholding safety protocol may not yet know whether they’ll be in front of a lecture hall or a webcam.

Prof. Tim Devoogd, psychology, said he learned about the fall plan on Tuesday as well — only a week after he was allowed back into his lab. This fall, Devoogd will again teach his Introduction to Behavioral Neuroscience course, a 2000-level class cross-listed with cognitive science. He doesn’t know what form the class will take.

In order to comply with guidelines, the lecture course — for which around 120 students pre-enroll every time it’s offered — would require both Devoogd and his pupils to wear face coverings or shields, and students to sit in assigned, distanced seats. The popular neuroscience prerequisite was last held in the 176-seat Lewis Auditorium, and will likely be slapped with one of the plan’s lowered capacity caps as well.

Each of those students, prior to making the trek to campus, will have to complete a “Daily Check” online questionnaire — a quick set of questions that takes less than a minute to complete for individuals without symptoms.

The daily check asks whether people have tested positive for COVID-19, experienced symptoms or come into contact with anyone who has tested positive or had symptoms.

No to all of the above? You get a “green” status. If an individual answers ‘yes,’ the platform directs faculty and staff to Cayuga Medical and students to Cornell Health for testing.

This protocol is already in place in Ithaca. CeCe Mondoza ’21, currently conducting on-campus bovine research, said that despite the University’s daily email reminder of the check she’s not sure how the University will enforce compliance on absentminded students.

“It’s just very easy to forget to do,” Mondoza said — she remembers by setting a phone reminder every day she goes to campus. “Also, you could just lie if you wanted to.”

If a student self-reports through the daily check or goes to Cornell Health or Cayuga Medical Center, the system is ready to handle them — testing sites will expand, and there will be testing locations at each of the three local colleges, Stallone said.

“Being vigilant about your own health is a key component of responsible population health,” Stallone said. He believes that a sense of that public responsibility is one reason Tompkins County has been able to flatten the local curve.

But COVID-19 does not exist in a health bubble, and experts are also grappling with how to treat and keep safe patients with chronic illnesses as well as those who will pick up other illnesses on the Ithaca campus.

One major sticking point: flu season 2020, which will overlap with the coronavirus more than the previous year, Stallone said. This will heighten the necessity of the influenza vaccine and practices like handwashing and distancing that help limit the spread of both respiratory diseases.

Cornell will also provide additional accommodations for those deciding to return to campus who are at-risk or managing existing health conditions, the press release said.

“I will be calling on all of us,” Pollack wrote in Tuesday’s release, “…to help ensure that every person behaves in ways that are responsible and caring.”

Detailed information as to how students will be tested and how testing will be enforced as well as protocol for moving in, quarantining and safe practices will be released in the coming weeks, Pollack wrote.