Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

The Arts Quad on March 13, 2020. One month after announcing campus would reopen, Cornell launches a public health campaign, hoping to influence student behavior in the fall.

August 6, 2020

University-Wide Campaign Seeks to Promote Public Health Awareness

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Signs telling students to wear a mask or stay “one Big Red bear” apart will soon adorn classrooms, dining and residence halls this fall.

The signage is part of Cornell’s public health campaign that aims to reduce the spread of COVID-19 on and off campus during the semester. Through this public health campaign, Cornell will send emails and post on social media to encourage students to adhere to public health guidelines.

One of the many signs that will be on campus includes a guide on what six feet of physical distancing should look like.

Courtesy of Cornell University

One of the many signs includes a guide on what six feet of physical distancing should look like.

In developing this campaign, Laura Santacrose MPH ’11, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives Assistant Director, said that Cornell Health tried to provide health expertise while addressing student-specific needs.

Before Cornell even announced that it would reopen campus in the fall, Santacrose and other administrators were already working on the campaign, meeting with planning groups to brainstorm ideas.

“Before we knew what Cornell’s reactivation plans were, it was challenging to think about what the planning group was going to say in this University-wide campaign,” Santacrose said. “Then, once we knew the plan, we were really able to work as a team to figure out how to move forward.”

Tim Marchell ’82, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives Director, emphasized that the University-led public health campaign was deeply rooted in helping students understand the science around the virus and how it applies to social situations such as parties.

“All of these together are risk factors that have translated into significant outbreaks in other communities around the country,” Marchell said. “We want to provide students with this information so that they can make sound judgments about how they’re going to socialize.”

Another sign encourages students to wear a mask.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Another sign encourages students to wear a mask.

During the past month, Cornell has reiterated that it is following the science and public health guidance surrounding the virus in reopening — even as its plans have come under scrutiny. With many experts saying that reopening colleges safely is a tall task, Cornell has been insistent on opening its doors in the fall.

On Aug. 5, President Martha E. Pollack doubled-down on Cornell’s decision to welcome students back, calling it the “best available option.” Pollack referenced Prof. Peter Frazier’s, operations research and information engineering, model, which found that it was safer to reopen campus than to have completely online classes.

The day before Cornell launched this public health campaign, it released the behavioral compact — a set of guidelines students must follow during the fall semester. These measures include reducing social gathering sizes and participating in daily checks in order to enter campus.

The public health campaign along with the behavioral compact represent a two-pronged approach the University decided to take in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. While the public health campaign aims to influence student behavior through an educational approach, the behavioral compact includes more punitive measures — like referring students to the Office of the Judicial Administrator if they continually and flagrantly fail to follow the rules.

Encouraging students to follow public health guidelines has been a major challenge at colleges nationwide. As colleges grapple with reopening their campuses safely, some universities have come under fire for strongly rebuking students who break the rules.

At Tulane University, the dean of students wrote, “Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?” in a July 7 email after students hosted parties during the Fourth of July weekend.

Vijay Pendakur, Dean of Students, told The Sun that Cornell doesn’t want to take this approach — the University wants to rely on educating students instead.

“We have tried to avoid the shame-based paradigm of compelling people towards action,” Pendakur said. “One approach is just to constantly cajole and shame people, and hope that they make better choices or less unsafe choices. But the other way to go about this is to use the huge body of social science research, if you establish healthy social norms, you remind people visually.”

A social media poster tells students coming to Ithaca from states on New York's travel advisory to quarantine for 14 days.

Courtesy of Cornell University

A social media poster tells students coming to Ithaca from states on New York’s travel advisory to quarantine for 14 days.

Besides signs and social media posts, Cornell’s public health campaign will also feature messages from local leaders, broadcast public service announcements and use paid advertising in order to reach as many students as possible.

Additionally, COVID-19 student ambassadors will play an instrumental part in this campaign. Cornell already released the application for the program on Monday, and these student ambassadors are expected to raise awareness on COVID-19 prevention guidelines. The COVID-19 student ambassador application is open to all students.

There will be two levels for student ambassadors: level one, where students will hand out PPE, and serve as role models for following the behavioral compact; and level two, where students will advocate for policies to reduce the spread of the virus and participate in weekly meeting with public health fellows in the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives.

During the course of the fall semester, Santacrose said she expects the campaign’s messaging to change and adapt to not only the science of the virus, but also the weather.

“In the beginning of the year, when the weather is really warm and beautiful in Ithaca, we can focus on explaining that socializing outside is safer than socializing inside,” Santacrose said. “But when it gets colder, telling people to only social outside won’t work, so we’ll need to adjust our messaging at that time to reflect different harm reduction strategies.”

Ideally, Marchell said that he hopes this public health campaign fosters a “shared commitment” to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in the Cornell community.

“We know that students want to do the right thing, and that they care about each other and this community,” Marchell said.

Kathryn Stamm ’22 contributed reporting.