Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Through public scrutiny, Cornell administrators have stood by their plan to welcome all students back to campus this fall.

July 30, 2020

Administration Defends Reopening Plan, Even As Peers Do Otherwise

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When Cornell announced its reopening plan, The Sun covered it, as expected. But The Seattle Times covering the University’s decision was more of a surprise.

The University’s reopening plan garnered national media attention because of its claim that a residential semester with testing and tracing would be safer for its students than a completely online semester. Cornell’s claim comes from a study it commissioned on the matter, led by Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering.

While Cornell’s unconventional decision put the University in a prominent place within the discussion of college reopenings, others have decided to take a different path. Many peer institutions decided to leave more students home, and some — such as Duke University, Georgetown University and the University of Southern California — reversed their original hybrid reopening plans.

Through the scrutiny, Cornell administrators have stood by the reopening plan.

On the same day Cornell announced that campus would reopen, President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikof released an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal defending the decision.

“For many universities, closing the campus to undergraduates is probably not the safest option — notwithstanding concerns that college students may not adhere to public-health guidelines,” the administrators wrote.

Other schools haven’t necessarily followed Pollack’s footsteps, though. Six of the eight Ivy League schools chose to not welcome all students back to campus. The University of Pennsylvania is the only other Ivy that will allow all students back onto campus.

Other neighboring schools have made decisions more in line with Cornell’s. Syracuse University and New York University both plan to welcome all students back to campus at this time.

But Cornell administrators aren’t concerned about what other schools are doing, as they have said Frazier’s study is based on factors specific to Cornell and the Ithaca community. In an interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Pollack defended her position to Andrew Ross Sorkin ’99.

“I want to be clear. It’s safer for our students at Cornell,” Pollack told Sorkin. “We did the study with regard to the conditions here in Ithaca. It does not necessarily apply elsewhere.”

One factor that appears to be a sticking point is the high number of Cornell students who live in off-campus housing, limiting the University’s ability to keep students home. Only 46 percent of undergraduate students live in on-campus housing, according to the Cornell Housing website.

“At colleges where many students live off-campus in leased apartments, students are likely to return to their college town or city even if education is online,” the administrators wrote in The Wall Street Journal op-ed. “If we are fully online, [Cornell students] will live together and interact free from the virus screening or behavioral requirements that would be in effect if the university were reopened.”

According to Pollack, surveys conducted by Cornell found that as many as 50 percent of undergraduates would return to Ithaca even if there were no in-person classes or clubs.

The University’s stance on returning students to Ithaca drew criticism, as Cornell has become a target for those who see college reopenings as dangerous. For example, Forbes mentioned Cornell in a headline about parties that took place hundreds of miles away.

The Forbes article, titled “Student ‘COVID-19 Parties:’ This is Why Cornell’s Logic is So Sketchy,” questioned Cornell’s research after multiple outlets reported that students in Alabama allegedly hosted parties while intentionally inviting people infected with the coronavirus. Although it’s unclear whether these parties actually happened, concerns about college parties spreading the virus persist.

“Whether or not Cornell students host an actual ‘COVID-19 party’ is beside the point,” the article read. “[Students] are going to party. They are going to take risks. And when they become infected with the coronavirus, they are going to transmit the disease to others who come into contact with them.”

Concerns about parties in Ithaca surfaced this week, as the Tompkins County Health Department reported Monday that nine new COVID-19 cases were related to a social gathering, where the attendees didn’t wear masks or practice social distancing.

Pollack addressed concerns of non-compliance in her interview with Sorkin.

“As far as parties go, we’re not naive. We know that we’re not going to be able to entirely control student behaviors. Students are students,” she said.

However, the president said she thinks that the administration can influence student compliance to some extent. Specifically, Pollack pointed to Cornell’s “surveillance testing,” which aims to regularly test asymptomatic students, as well as “a series of escalating interventions” for students who aren’t compliant.

“If you forget your mask, we’re just going to remind you to put your mask on,” Pollack said to Sorkin. “If you continue to misbehave, we will have escalating steps to try and get you to behave according to the behavioral expectations of the campus.”

But Frazier factored parties into his research. Frazier said in an interview with The Sun that an unexpected increase in student interactions could lead to more infections than the model predicted. He also mentioned that increasing the frequency of testing could help address an increase in the number of student contacts.

Some of the University’s testing protocols have already come to fruition. Testing for students on campus started July 16, and students, particularly those living off campus, are required to schedule an initial test once they return to Ithaca.

Quarantine measures are another major component of Cornell’s reopening plan. Students have to quarantine for 14 days before coming to campus, and those from high COVID-19 states have to arrive early and quarantine on campus.

Recently, Tompkins County has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, and the Ithaca area reported hospitalizations for the first time since late May. As of Wednesday, there are zero hospitalizations.

Regardless of the uptick in confirmed cases and criticisms, administrators remain optimistic that Cornell’s fall reopening plan will succeed in keeping the rate of transmission low.

“As universities like Cornell make difficult decisions about the fall semester, it’s important to consider the risks of not reopening alongside the risks of opening,” The Wall Street Journal op-ed read. “[I]f a university is prepared to put in place a comprehensive virus screening program followed up with supportive quarantine and isolation — in addition to other effective public health measures — reopening may be the more responsible option.”