August 4, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Shift in Quarantine Process Enhances Public Health

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Last week, we announced changes to the quarantine process for students living on campus and who are traveling from restricted areas. We understand that these changes created some confusion among our students, faculty and staff, as well as among our neighbors in the greater Ithaca area. We would like to provide some additional clarity around the decision, particularly regarding what we see as the net positive impact that the shift will have on the public health of our community.

First, why did we make this shift? When we originally announced our plans to quarantine those students planning to live on campus who are arriving from states subject to the New York state travel advisory in area hotels, COVID-19 cases were decreasing or flattening in many areas. Since that time, we have seen a significant increase in cases nationally, and the travel advisory has grown to include 34 states plus Puerto Rico. It simply became impossible for us to guarantee accommodations for this cohort close to Ithaca, and we concluded that isolating individual students for 14 days in a hotel room up to two hours away from campus was an unacceptable and potentially unsafe way for students to start their semester.

Second, who is impacted by this shift? Our announcement impacts the roughly 1,300 students who plan to live on campus and are returning from a state affected by the NYS travel advisory. These students are encouraged to begin their semester remotely at their permanent residence until their state is removed from the NYS travel advisory. We know that some students may choose to quarantine outside of Ithaca, ideally in another state that is not subject to the advisory, prior to returning to campus. Students who are unable to remain at home and to effectively engage in their Cornell education may request an exception to quarantine on campus. Earlier today, Cornell Housing released additional details about that exception process. International students with on-campus housing contracts also have the option to quarantine on campus to assist in meeting student visa requirements.

Finally, what about testing? Who will be tested and when? This shift doesn’t impact the rigorous surveillance testing plans that are already being implemented for all returning students. Any student from a travel advisory state who quarantines on campus will be tested on arrival, and again three days later, before initiating their regular testing program. Indeed, all undergraduate students who return to Ithaca – regardless of the state from which they are traveling and whether they are living on or off campus – will be tested twice weekly from arrival through departure in November. Graduate and professional students will be tested at a frequency that corresponds to their risk of infection.

As our students return, or plan to do so soon, we cannot stress enough that they are personally responsible for following all NYS travel advisory and quarantine guidelines, including notifying NYS of your arrival from a travel advisory state. These rules are in place both for your health and safety, and for that of the greater Tompkins County community. We also want to stress the importance of our students complying with the Behavioral Compact which will be released later this week. Indeed, compliance with the Compact is required and is a critical component of our overall commitment to promoting and protecting the collective health of our community. We will soon be launching a public health education campaign to underscore the role that each of us must play in advancing public health. Most importantly, wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing is the core behavioral action that will help keep us all safe.

As a reminder, all students, regardless of where they intend to live in the fall, are required to update their plans in the Re-entry Checklist. Students who are already here, or plan to arrive prior to the structured on-campus move-in, must use the Checklist to schedule their ‘arrival test.’ If you are in the Ithaca area now and have not done so already, schedule your test today.

In closing, we hear the phrase “these are unprecedented times” so frequently that “expecting the unexpected” no longer feels novel. When fully active, Cornell is the size of a small city, and even during the best of times, planning for move-in takes hundreds of staff members several months to finalize. And our “small city” is part of a surrounding, vibrant community of neighbors who have their own understandable concerns and emotions around our restart. We must all recognize the impacts that our decisions and behaviors have on the greater community, and commit ourselves to being respectful and responsive in our community engagements and interactions. The evolving nature of the pandemic makes these tasks even more challenging.

With less than a month before the semester starts, we all must expect more changes. Please continue to monitor the NYS travel advisory and adjust your plans accordingly should your state go on, or come off, the list. We hope to see as many students back in the fall as possible, but we also understand that this is a challenging time and that many of you may choose to remain at home for part or all of the semester. Please make these decisions based on what is best for your individual situation, and your ability to follow all necessary health and safety measures, including quarantine and testing procedures.

It is disheartening to see the distress that the pandemic and uncertainties about the start of the fall semester are having on our community. Please take care of yourselves and each other.


Michael Kotlikoff is the Cornell University Provost. Ryan Lombardi is the Cornell University Vice President for Student and Campus Life. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this summer.