For many, returning to campus in the fall is bittersweet.
On one hand, on-campus instruction represents some semblance of normalcy. On the other, a return to campus — now filled with Zoom meetings and social distancing protocols — still carries a major health risk.
Amid the uncertainty and anxieties that come with reopening campus during a pandemic, The Sun spoke with administrators Ryan Lombardi and Sharon McMullen about the University’s decision to welcome students back in August.
“I do think that Cornell made a really good decision based on the information we had and have available to us,” said Lombardi, who is the Vice President for Student and Campus Life. “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.”
Cornell is one of only two schools in the Ivy League that will allow all students to return in the fall. Harvard and Princeton decided to be mostly online, with only subsets of students permitted to be on campus. Other peer institutions, like the University of Southern California, first announced it would reopen campus for the fall, only to quickly shift to online instruction after California saw a major spike in coronavirus cases.
Lombardi and McMullen defended Cornell’s reopening plan, citing its flexibility and the already isolated nature of Ithaca. Some aspects of Cornell’s reopening plan include a phased move-in, daily check-ins and socially distanced campus and residential spaces.
“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,” said McMullen, the Assistant Vice President of Student and Campus Life for Health and Wellbeing. “This is a responsive plan.”
One of the biggest concerns stemming from Cornell’s reopening plan was enforcement. How would the University stop large parties? Can Cornell enforce its rules off campus?
Other colleges that recently announced they would reopen campus in the fall have experienced coronavirus outbreaks largely linked to parties and fraternities. At the University of Washington, at least 136 fraternity house residents and nine other students tested positive for COVID-19, which U.W. officials called a “Greek Row outbreak.”
The University of California, Berkeley saw 47 students test positive for COVID-19, with most cases linked to fraternities and sororities. More than 160 students at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi also tested for the coronavirus, and city officials tied the outbreak to off campus fraternity rush parties that occurred in June.
At Cornell, right after President Martha E. Pollack abruptly suspended in-person instruction in March, students packed Collegetown bars and fraternity parties in droves. Due to the surge in partying during a mounting pandemic, Lombardi had to send an email to the Cornell community, imploring students to stop attending large gatherings and to practice social distancing.
Nearly four months later, Lombardi emphasized trusting students to abide by Cornell’ behavioral compact and that they could face serious consequences for failing to do so.
“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,” Lombardi said.
Lombardi also said that students who fail to follow the behavioral compact could end up getting referred to the Office of the Judicial Administrator, but the consequences remain unclear so far, as the University is still ironing out the details. The University prefers that any punishment is educational, rather than punitive, Lombardi added, but said Cornell might have to escalate its strategy if students continually violate the agreement.
Cornell’s reopening plan has come under scrutiny — particularly from faculty members.
Professors generally expressed reluctance to host in-person classes, but now, they are caught in a balancing act between maintaining their personal safety and delivering quality instruction. With nearly one-third of Cornell’s faculty over the age of 60, faculty members expressed preferences to host online classes, even though Cornell opted for hybrid instruction.
A major source of faculty skepticism was the model created by Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, found that Ithaca would experience even more outbreaks if Cornell didn’t open its doors in the fall. Pollack attributed Frazier’s model as a crucial reason why Cornell chose to reopen.
Many faculty members commented anonymously on the Faculty Senate page about the metrics used in the study, some arguing that a model for a college campus shouldn’t have been based on average population estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frazier’s study worked under the assumption that college students would come into contact with an average of 8.3 people a day.
Responding to these criticisms, McMullen maintained that the study was Cornell-specific, and that using an average was part of predictive modeling.
“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,” McMullen said. “I think the predictive modeling is really fascinating, because it is Cornell specific.”
But beyond enforcement, another looming concern is fostering a sense of community when clubs, career fairs and even classes will mostly be virtual. Incoming first-years previously expressed fears that they wouldn’t be able to fully experience college life through virtual events.
First-year and transfer orientation groups are piecing together plans that follow public health guidelines and that will require a lot of “intentionality” from everyone to follow such guidelines while socializing, Lombardi said. The administrators also said the University intends to repurpose popular hang out spaces on campus like Temple of Zeus, Mann Library and Duffield Hall, asking students to monitor themselves and adhere to public health guidelines.
“Our goal is really to figure out how we can employ those protective measures in a way that still allows us to build community,” McMullen said.
While the administration is still figuring out the logistics for the fall semester, Lombardi and McMullen hoped that Cornell wouldn’t have to resort to a sudden end of the semester — as it did in March — with a plan in place to frequently test and monitor students.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know too, but there’s a lot more that we knew than back some months ago,” Lombardi said. “I don’t think any of us want to relive that March if we can avoid it.”
Read the full interview here.