As Cornell prepares to open its doors in August, it is caught in a dilemma: how to balance students’ desires of returning to campus while mitigating the spread of COVID-19 during an in-person semester.
Based on a model commissioned by the teaching reactivation committee, Cornell says it’s possible to have both, but some students and faculty members remain skeptical.
Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, was the faculty member who created this model — the model is one of the primary reasons why President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced that the University would reopen campus in the fall.
However, the model raised many questions about the assumptions made as well as the efficacy of enforcement and testing to control the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Frazier’s model found that a return to campus — coupled with stringent testing — would lead to less infections than an entirely remote semester.
This seemingly counterintuitive result mainly rests on the assumption that many students would return to Ithaca regardless of the University’s decision. If Cornell decided not to reopen, these students would still be in Ithaca, but would not be subjected to any testing and quarantine regulations. By reopening, Cornell said it can organize testing regiments to keep the community safe.
However, no model is perfect in predicting the future. Models rely on known parameters to make predictions about the future. The reopening model utilized information about the University and its community along with metrics related to the spread of the virus from the past several months — like the number of infections per case — to understand the outcomes of different realities next semester.
Some students and faculty questioned the parameters of this model, expressing skepticism about the number of students that would return to Ithaca if the University were to go online. After Cornell unveiled its plan, Prof. Kim Weeden, sociology, questioned the results of the survey Cornell used to anticipate the number of students that would return to campus for a remote semester in a tweet.
When I saw Cornell’s epi model, I had many of the same reactions as @WStevenHolbrook. (I was on the committee that wrote the reopening report, but a different sub-committee from the one that wrestled with health concerns and did the epi modeling.) https://t.co/WM0fZssnQP
— Kim Weeden (@WeedenKim) July 1, 2020
The survey was conducted June 5, when the curve of cases in the US had temporarily flattened. Now, as active cases rise in 49 states, the increased severity of the pandemic could deter students from participating in non-remote classes. Weeden pointed out that the survey was only given to students, but ultimately, in most cases, it’s up to the parents if students can return to Ithaca.
“Many students may want to come back to a college town to be with friends even if classes are on-line, but whoever is footing the bills may have quite different ideas on the subject,” Weeden said in a tweet.
Two of the key statistical parameters of the study have also faced scrutiny. For one, the study posits that each individual comes into contact with 8.3 people per day. This number comes from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s estimate of the average number of individuals the general population of adults comes into contact with, void of any social distancing regulations, according to Frazier.
The model’s reliance on a CDC average led many to question whether this general statistic was applicable to a college campus. However, a “contact” is not simply passing someone in the hallway or sitting in the same room as them — it is being within 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes.
The concern regarding applicability of general statistics to a college campus carries over into uncertainty in the model’s basic reproduction number, or R0. This number represents an average of how many people someone with the virus infects. Cornell’s model utilizes an R0 of 2.5, which also comes from the CDC.
Frazier acknowledged that this number is not perfect, but said it still provides a good estimate because college campus circumstances are not entirely different from the rest of the world. While the general population is not frequenting lecture halls, they encounter other scenarios where surface transmission would be common through subway cars or busy restaurants.
“It’s not like surface transmission only happens in universities. So, we believe that that kind of aspect of transmission is reflected in the 2.5 number,” Frazier said.
Read The Sun’s interview with Frazier here.
One of the largest factors playing into the uncertainty of this model is human behavior. While some of this uncertainty is accounted for in the statistical parameters, much of what influences the transmission rate is whether people adhere to public health guidelines, particularly physical distancing and wearing appropriate protective equipment.
Frazier’s current conclusions point toward reopening, requiring a doubling of daily contacts for the conclusions to change. However, Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, science and technology studies, would like to see what happens when the assumptions in the model are altered.
“In the optimal case, or in the nominal case, the distinction between opening and not opening is really clear,” Lewenstein said. “The uncertainty is at what point those possibilities get close enough that it’s no longer a strong case.”
In both the nominal, or average, and the optimistic cases, the models favor on-campus instruction with testing as the safer option. Lewenstein would like to explore what changes to these assumptions would mean in order to understand how to address various scenarios in the fall.
According to Lewenstein, the Cornell community should understand that it is difficult to closely predict the course of the fall semester — using the CDC numbers for the general population allows Cornell to directly compare itself to other institutions.
“At some point, you have to live in the world and there’s also risk in my going out on the dog walk, that I’m going to trip and break my leg,” Lewenstein said. “Yes, it’s not a potentially fatal disease, separating your shoulder. But the point is, you know, there are risks in the world. So at some point, you have to make some kind of calibration.”
One strategy that could keep transmission rates low and strengthen Cornell’s public health measures is student participation in the planning and implementation process, said Prof. Vivian Zayas, psychology.
“The administration should be actively soliciting the help of students. Students need to drive the norms that will be created on campus,” Zayas said. “We don’t have a norm of physical distancing — this has never happened before. Getting students involved in creating that norm is going to be very important.”
However, even if the majority of students comply with social distancing, self monitoring and testing requirements, Prof. William Sonnentsuhl, organizational behavior, worries that parties could become super spreader events at Cornell.
Parties are a key concern nationwide. At Cornell, administrators said that they are relying on students to abide by the behavioral compact and not host any large off-campus gatherings. While polls show that many students will comply with the rules, parties have already created outbreaks at multiple universities, including the University of Washington and University of California, Berkeley.
Sonnenstuhl, who advises Sober@Cornell and the Cornell Sober House, believes that alcohol dependency may make some students more resistant to social distancing efforts.
“Many of those undergraduate parties may be driven by students abusing alcohol or dependent on alcohol,” Sonnenstuhl said. “Those kids will not respond to normal social norming efforts . Those students who are dependent, they are going to drive those parties no matter what.”
Sonnenstuhl expressed concerns about the effect that parties may have not only on campus, but in the surrounding community.
“Parties are now potential super spreader events that could affect the rest of campus and the larger Ithaca community, and Tompkins county as a whole,” Sonnenstuhl said. “Cornell is not an island.”
Even with stringent testing and protective measures, some risks will remain this semester.
“We’re not going to get to zero risk [and] we are going to have infections. We are going to have people in the hospital. It is quite possible we are going to have people die,” Lewenstein said. “But we also can’t live in a zero risk world. And part of what we have to come to terms with is the uncertainties.”
Lewenstein also pointed out that while there are risks with reopening, there are also concerns with an entirely virtual semester. On the academic front, there are faculty who want to teach their students, and with proper protective measures, are willing to bear the risks to provide their students with in-person instruction. Similarly, there are students who are eager to get to campus, even with the social distancing measures in place.
There are also economic factors that push the University to bring students back on campus. The local economy also has a stake in this decision, as Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 previously said that “If the students don’t come back in the fall, we’re in real cataclysmic trouble.” The University would also likely see a drop-off in tuition revenue if campus were to not reopen, as only 32 percent of students said they would be “very likely” to enroll if classes were entirely virtual.
Health risks are also closely associated with economic concerns, Lewenstein said.
“I think there are real long term health risks associated with the economic collapse of the Ithaca region,” Lewenstein said. “We have a healthcare system in the United States where your insurance flows through your employer, and so if people lose their jobs, they also lose that insurance.”
Cornell has also set itself apart from other colleges and universities in attempting the sort of modeling that Frazier and his colleagues conducted, Lewenstein added. Frazier’s group has been “open and transparent” in the shortcomings of the model, taking comments and criticism from faculty and addressing them in an in-progress addendum.
“Is it perfect? No. Is the model exactly what’s going to happen? No, that’s not what models are,” Lewenstein said. “[But] you catch [infections] at a point when there’s still some possibility of contact tracing and isolation and quarantining. This isn’t a ‘People will get it and we’re doomed’ this is a ‘People will get it, and we think we have a method in place for catching that and addressing it.’”