Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Administrators unveiled a new plan Wednesday afternoon for how to distribute Cornell's remaining CARES Act money to students.

July 13, 2020

Cornell Admin Stand By Plan to Return to Campus, Call for Flexibility and Trust

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Editor’s Note: After President Martha E. Pollack announced campus would reopen in the fall, The Sun spoke with Ryan Lombardi, Vice President for Student and Campus Life, and Sharon McMullen, Assistant Vice President of Student & Campus Life for Health and Wellbeing, about the logistics and protocols that would be in place for the upcoming semester. 

The Sun: How are you going to enforce the 14-day quarantine for students?

Lombardi: This is related to the New York State regulation right now, so we’re currently working with the Council of Independent Colleges and Universities in the State of New York to talk to the state government about whether or not the same exact mechanism for that quarantine applies to higher education. We’re working right now to get some clarity on that. We’re also developing plans, simultaneously, if that stays in place that 14-day quarantine stays in place. Certainly if it does as we approach August when we’d be getting into regular movement, we’ll have to significantly extend the move-in timeframe, it would be very difficult to accomplish that, being candid. But, we are trying to develop plans right now in the event that’s going to be the case. We have asked for students who might be living off-campus and making their way back to Ithaca over the summer that they follow this. Presumably, those are less urgent returns to campus than when we get closer to the fall, but we have been asking folks to [quarantine]. Right now we’re preparing but we’re also hoping that we’ll get some more refined guidance about this particular issue that will make it a little more feasible to move in, as we had hoped to do so over about an eight-day period

The Sun: In the announcement, it said that large gatherings on campus will be limited, but what about events that happen off campus? Can Cornell enforce anything off campus?

Lombardi: So, the same rules apply. We’re going to ask our students who abide by these if you know students taking classes with us, they’re going to agree to this behavioral compact which is going to state that they’re not going to participate in or host those types of gatherings and so we are going to expect them to to abide by that. It’s obviously different than on campus because we don’t control the space or all that kind of stuff but if we have students who, for instance, we know where students live if they’re hosting if their events at their their place of residence, we’ll have an opportunity to follow up with those students and and talk with them about that violation of the behavioral compact. That will be part of the follow up, that will be necessary. Our hope though, is that students come into this with the right mindset. I know, having spoken to many students this summer, many of them really want to be back in Ithaca, even if that means under a different way of operating and are really hopeful that we can be together again. I’m just really hopeful that students will do the right thing here and engage in behaviors that will support a public health approach in this community for the benefit of Cornell for the benefit of the broader Ithaca community. I have great optimism that Cornell students will and there are others that perhaps are questioning that, which I can appreciate, but, you know, look I wouldn’t be the Student Life person if I didn’t have great belief in Cornell students.

The Sun: So, to follow up on that, if someone does participate in a behavior that would go against the compact, is that eligible for a disciplinary like referendum? Is there some sort of process to hold people accountable?

Lombardi: We’re building that process right now but the answer is yes, we, there will be a process for that. It will be largely administratively. In other words, we don’t want it to have to take a long time, and the hope is that this can be as educational as possible, but we do understand that there may be cases where students are either just flagrantly violating the agreement or, egregiously violating the agreement and we will build in the escalation plan where there could be very serious consequences for that. Could end up being referred to the Judicial Administrator, could be a different process, something along those lines but that’s not our hope. We don’t want to go down that path. We really want to focus on education and public health awareness but, frankly, we just can’t if we see repeated abuse of certain types of things, then we’ll have to escalate that.

Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi

The Sun: In the same vein, there’s different structures that foster different mental health environments. If you’re living in a house with your peers, your friends, if you’re living in Greek housing or residential housing like Ujamaa or Akwe:kon, or that have a built-in community sense, that experience is very different than someone who might have booked a single somewhere on West. What initiatives are you thinking about to make sure that the public health and safety is important, and also the mental health and community feeling at Cornell?

Lombardi: I think that’s going to really require a lot of intentionality on our part about the way we try to help shape the community within the residences on campus. Of course that’s easier for us to do on campus in some of those types of environments that you mentioned, versus a student who has their own apartment off campus. For the single room on West Campus, I know that the West Campus House staff, for example, are thinking about how they can still create community building experiences with small groups of people in a manner that supports all public health guidance. I think it’s just going to require adaptation and reframing of what it means to do that it might not be, the big House Dinner as a House Fellow in Rose House, I’m accustomed to going to the big House Dinner and going down there and being with you know 200 or 300, students and right on kind of on top of each other, eating. It’s obviously going to be a different experience but that will just require a level of intentionality on the part of our residential team, and staff to help us facilitate that.

I’ll say for me, we certainly experienced it over the spring, I think we’ve all experienced it — the isolating nature of our work or being a student right now. It’s been incredibly hard for so many of us. Even though we’ll be back and there’ll be more support in those regards, I’m still worried about this. I still want to make sure we can create a community and support our students and create all the best of what Cornell has to offer and why students appreciate being at Cornell, to have the best possible mental health and overall health and well being as possible.

McMullen: Our team is thinking a lot about this as well. One of the mind shifts that we made early on was to think about physical distancing instead of social distancing as humans are social animals. We need to be in community where that feeds our health and well being. So when we think about physical distancing, it’s still possible to socialize physically distanced. It’s harder, it takes more intentionality, as Ryan has mentioned, but it’s understanding what those risk factors for disease transmission are, and then taking those measures necessary to break the chain of transmission, for example, staying six feet apart, wearing a face covering, washing hands frequently, disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Our goal is really to figure out how we can employ those protective measures in a way that still allows us to build community.

The Sun: A lot of other schools are announcing their reopening plans now and Harvard and Princeton said they would be mostly online, and USC changed its plan to be completely online after California saw a huge spike in cases. Do you still think that Cornell made the right decision to reopen?

Lombardi: I do, I appreciate the question. I do think that Cornell made a really good decision based on the information we had and have available to us. Having said that, I will say we’re paying close attention to what’s happening around the country and, and that it gives us concern and, we’re monitoring it very closely and watching and have noted with interest all the schools that you mentioned and their decisions that they’ve made. I think it is important to acknowledge and this is less about the recent spikes that we’ve seen, but more about the nature of the different institutions. Every institution does have a different context — where it’s situated, what the environment is like around it, the residential on-campus population versus off-campus population. These contextual factors matter in what makes sense for that institution. I see a lot of chatter, I hear a lot of chatter from students comparing us to our peer schools but you really need to think about the residential nature and the dispersal of students, all that before we really begin to compare. I think that Cornell made a very sound decision, but I’m keenly aware and I think we all are and are continuing to watch. This is a rapidly changing circumstance around us and we’re going to have to be flexible and adjust. That’s not just the administration, that’s the students, we’re all going to have to work together to pivot as this pandemic continues to unfold here and elsewhere. So, that’s the caveat there.

McMullen: Yeah, Ryan I would echo that. And one of the things that I especially appreciate having been involved in the reactivation planning, I served on the Committee for Teaching Reactivation options I think we recall, is the flexibility, the scalability of the plan. We are looking at national and local incidents, and then understanding what are those measures that we have to put into place to provide Cornell with the safest possible environment. We’ll be watching — we are currently watching incidents, local incidents and national incidents. We’ll use that data and much more to determine if we need to scale up our efforts, or, in a best case scenario, back down some of our efforts. This is a responsive plan.

Sharon McMullen, Assistant Vice President of Student & Campus Life for Health and Wellbeing

Courtesy of Cornell University

Sharon McMullen, Assistant Vice President of Student & Campus Life for Health and Wellbeing

The Sun: What would it take to prompt the response that we saw in March? What might that cause that kind of situation to happen again?

McMullen: I think what’s different about where we are now compared to where we were in January when we at Cornell Health started tracking on this, what was then an outbreak. Then in February, as more and more of us began to understand that this was a burgeoning pandemic that Ryan and, and our colleagues on the Vice President’s Council came to the realization: This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. Where we are now, though, is in a place where we’re proactively monitoring, we’ve got this team of public health and medical experts on campus, who are charged with collecting and analyzing data, for example, the number of COVID cases, test positivity rate, surveillance clusters — should they occur. The goal is to look for signals that can help university leaders make informed decisions. In March, things were happening so rapidly that it was hard for me, a public health expert, to really wrap my head around what was happening and just put it all into context. I would say that the difference now is that we have a proactive plan. We’ve got a series of measures that we’re watching, and that monitoring system will continue to be developed so that it will give us, I hope, the intention is to give us some lead time. Then we can reach out to work with our peer institutions, we could reach out to our local community to understand what our next steps might be.

Lombardi: And I would just offer it may be, Maryam, that the approach is not the same. I mean it may be given what we know and the way Sharon just articulated that if things spike or get worse here, then the best option is to stay put. We stay in place and we don’t get together anymore, but we stay physical here as opposed to what we did in the spring which was to, fan out as much as possible, the extent that people could return to other places. That’s the kind of flexibility, we’re going to have to have depending on this, but like Sharon says ,we have a whole lot more inputs and knowledge right now than we did. There’s still a lot we don’t know too, but there’s a lot more that we knew than back some months ago. I don’t think any of us want to relive that March if we can avoid it.

Scores of students buy boxes, ready to move out of their dorms and apartments, right after Cornell suspended in-person instruction for the spring 2019 semester.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Scores of students buy boxes, ready to move out of their dorms and apartments, right after Cornell suspended in-person instruction for the spring 2019 semester.

The Sun: In terms of first year orientation, and some of those staple fall items, how are those going to be adapted and also similarly, in that same vein, what about first-year residential advisers and other RAs who are expected to be a part of keeping the University safe? How are they going to be kept safe?

Lombardi: So, in fact I was just talking to a couple of members of the orientation steering committee this morning and it was a good conversation. The team is putting together plans right now for how to have an orientation that helps with the things we were talking about before — building some community, helping especially first year students. I know your college experience has been disrupted, but imagine if you were starting under these circumstances, how much different that would feel than when you did — [we’re] making sure that we can welcome our new students in the best way possible.

We will want to make sure that whatever those plans look like, it keeps the safety of the incoming students or current students in the forefront. And if we can’t do that in-person, we’ll do it in some kind of virtual situation. We’re only going to put together opportunities that allow for everyone in this community — faculty, staff, students to be here in a safe manner as possible. So the same applies to RAs at the top. And again, it goes back to the very good question you asked before, the top thing we’re going to have to ask RAs is to try to help facilitate that community building and that sense of place and sense of belonging here at Cornell on a much smaller scale than what they’re otherwise accustomed to. So, all those issues are on the front of our minds, but there aren’t a lot of specifics to share right now because we’re putting a lot of the pieces together right now. But it’s very much on the forefront of our minds, and I mean the same goes, with the staff; Sharon’s thinking about this with her team, Cornell health, we’re thinking about this with just about every office on campus every faculty member, etc.

The Sun: One of the biggest parts that went into reopening was a model that Professor Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, conducted which showed that it would be worse if campus didn’t reopen because people would still move back in. When he spoke with The Sun, he said that he modeled it in the sense that students would come in contact with an average of 8.3 people a day. Some people have pushed back on that notion that students would come into contact with that many people and that on a college campus would instead come into contact with even more than that. Can you respond to the criticisms and data that went into that model?

McMullen: So I’m not an expert on predictive modeling by any stretch, but I did have the pleasure of working alongside Dr. Frazier on this health considerations subcommittee that we served on and it’s fascinating to watch the process by which he and his team developed this model.

In my background I served as a public health nurse, back in my career, and when I started in college health at the University of Pennsylvania and I would run contact investigations for our students with, for example, tuberculosis, and Professor Frazier said, “So Sharon how many how many students would you come across that had a lot of contacts?” And, so we would banter back and forth. But then he would take that little grain and go back into the research. CDC has good parameters on average number of contacts. Then, he and his team thought about how does that apply to the college student population. So, that 8.3 is an average, there’s nothing about any of our individual lives that is average, but for the purpose of predictive modeling, it is an input. I think the predictive modeling is really fascinating, because it is Cornell specific. I think he had his team make that note, others across the country are looking at that model, and would have to make those adjustments that are very Cornell-specific to apply them to the projections more generalizable.

Lombardi: I think the work of Professor Frazier was really remarkable and thoughtful. And, I just want to say I plugged them in trying to look at this through a scientific lens. There are so many perspectives on the efficacy of opening, not opening and what’s the right decision. There’s a lot of perspectives on this, and what he did try to do and Cornell has tried to do is really look at this using data to the best of our ability — understanding, you’ve got to normalize some things, you’ve got to use averages at the end of the day. That doesn’t mean everybody has 8.3 contacts a day that’s not what the model is suggesting. I think it’s it you know, it requires all of us to be students of this and understand that the theory behind this, broadly speaking, is that some semblance of control and compliance around these public health guidelines at varying levels is better than none, and create safer conditions than not at all. And we know that none at all is a given. You could argue, some percentage of students would have come back and lived in their apartments off-campus and there would have been no compliance whatsoever that was imposed by the University. You put some compliance, the numbers improve. It’s pretty straightforward in that regard and I really applaud Professor Frazier and the rest of the team, Sharon and the colleagues that were working on this so diligently. There’s a lot of interest in it across the country and this is an evolving area of study.

A student takes notes during a Zoom online class.  Online classes and Zoom meetings became the norm toward the end of the spring semester.

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A student takes notes during a Zoom online class. Online classes and Zoom meetings became the norm toward the end of the spring semester.

McMullen: One thing I’ll add to that is the approach is layered. So, there’s no silver bullet. And we are layering these individual actions. For example, covering one’s face with a mask or a face covering, in addition to staying six feet apart. So, I’m getting into these arcane conversations with folks who want to know, “Well, could I stay six feet apart? Could I stay seven feet apart and not wear a face covering.?” No, the idea is this layering of these measures, none of them is — by itself — sufficient, but it is through building this kind of rich approach that at least Professor Frazier’s model indicates that it provides the best opportunity to decrease the risk of outbreaks. That’s really what that model is about: What are the measures that have the most impact on reducing outbreaks?

The Sun: How about those campus spaces that aren’t classrooms — Duffield, Mann Library, Temple of Zeus — these community kind of hangout spaces that are enclosed. How are those going to be regulated? What expectations are going to be in those spaces?

Those spaces will be well-marked. I think students can expect to see well-marked with reminders of physical distancing, to Sharon’s point — I think that nomenclature is important. And with parameters around that and we’ll be asking people who are more local to those facilities to help us monitor those spaces and remind students again, if we’re violating some of the public health guidance to do their best to adhere to those when they’re in those spaces. So, we hope to keep, much of those types of spaces open because they’re important places to hang out and they are big, so I think some of that physical distancing can take place effectively there. We’re going to be asking students to really monitor themselves and follow these public health guidelines.

The Sun: If a student believes that they have tested positive, what are the steps that they would go through? What’s the facility that they’re going to be tested at and after they receive a positive diagnosis, what is the expectation for someone who’s living on or off campus?

McMullen: So we have a two-pronged approach to testing. One is for surveillance testing, and that is screening the entire population to search specifically for infections that people don’t realize they have. Then, there’s the second type, which is diagnostic testing, and this is what we’ve been doing in Cornell Health since January or February. It’s for people who believe that they were either exposed, or who were notified that they were exposed to someone who has a confirmed case of COVID or someone with symptoms. So say you wake up in the morning and you realize, “Gee, I’ve got symptoms that could be consistent with COVID.” You’d have a telehealth visit.

One of the important things in our pandemic operations, is to not expose people to COVID by coming to a place where people with COVID go, which is a healthcare facility. So we’re using telehealth to great effect to evaluate which people need to come into the facility. You wake up, realize, and you’ve got, maybe two or three symptoms that could be consistent with COVID. You have a telehealth appointment by phone or video, and then our provider indicates whether you should come into the facility to be tested. Now, test results take one day, two days, three days, depending on where you are in the week. We’re working toward being able to get much more rapid results with the idea that a student who would be tested would have the results quickly and know whether they needed to go into isolation. If someone with symptoms is found to have COVID, then isolation would be the outcome, or if they have to be quarantined, for example, if they were exposed to someone else with COVID but don’t have symptoms. Please know that the Tompkins County Health Department manages and oversees all designations of isolation and quarantine, and we work very closely in partnership with them.

If there’s a student who’s living on-campus, and is in a room that has other roommates, campus housing will work to facilitate another place for the student to go for isolation for as long as it’s needed, and we’ve been doing this consistently since testing started. To come out of isolation, there’s a whole process: We call the student every day to say, “Are you feeling any changes in your symptoms? Do you need anything? Our Dean of Students’ crisis managers have been magnificent in supporting our students who are in isolation. When their isolation period is over, then we do an evaluation, we connect with Tompkins County Health Department to release the student. So it’s a pretty well-oiled machine by now, I will say that we’ve had some practice. We hope that there’s not going to be an influx of cases but guess what, we’re ready. We’ve been preparing and if it happens, we’ll deal with it.

Editor’s note: The following portion of the interview was a series of responses addressing pre-provided questions by The Sun regarding housing and residential life.

The Sun: What about housing capacity?

Lombardi: We don’t think that capacity is going to be significantly limited. We’re really only eliminating triples and quads from the portfolio which is just a little over 200 beds, out of 7,000 so, it’s not a huge percentage of the population. Frankly, we also anticipate that some students are going to choose not to return, who might have already had a housing contract on campus and so they’ll be able to cancel that and not come in. We actually don’t anticipate displacing students either first-year, or continuing students who anticipated living on campus. We don’t think this is going to create a pinch for us this coming year from our analysis.

The Sun: How will students and parents quarantine in move-in? 

Lombardi: We are working on the move in process right now again it goes back to that question that was asked earlier about the 14 day thing. Our current plan is to do move-in over about an eight-day window of time, so that we can stagger students coming in over that time, so that they have ample time to be quarantined until the test results come back to indicate a negative before we will begin to populate the space. We’ve worked with local hotels — we’ve got many, many, many many rooms on hold for that process. But we also know we can bring about half of the population immediately into the residence hall rooms by only having one student in a room at a time, so they can basically self-quarantine while they wait for that initial test result once they come to campus. And, then we can use hotels to supplement in the subsequent days.

In March, first-years experienced an abrupt end to their first year of college. Now, incoming first-years will move into dorms with stringent social distancing guidelines and partake in virtual orientation events.

Boris Tsang/ Sun Photography Editor

In March, first-years experienced an abrupt end to their first year of college. Now, incoming first-years will move into dorms with stringent social distancing guidelines and partake in virtual orientation events.

So, the logistics behind this as you should imagine are pretty immense. The team’s putting together all of the details, and we’ll be sending that directly to students in the coming weeks so they know exactly which day they should show up, depending on which building they’re assigned to and how all that process will play out.

At this point we are saying we’re going to need parents to stay out of the buildings. They can certainly bring for those that travel with their students, they can certainly bring them to campus, they can drop them, see them off but we are at this point, going to ask them not to come to the residential buildings. We’ll also be asking students to bring less than what they might have otherwise planned to bring, a couple of suitcases and just the essentials, so discouraging what we typically see with U-Hauls and big things like that. It’s going to be modified, but that’s the way we’re going to be able to have a move-in process that keeps the community as safe as possible. It’s going to be different than the normal falls, but we think that, again, folks can manage this for a semester under these unique circumstances.