Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

When Cornell announced classes would move online in March, students scrambled to pack and move home. Now, after Cornell walked back quarantine accommodations, some students are struggling to decide if they should move in this fall.

August 9, 2020

In a Rocky Start to August, Students Scramble to Make Quarantine Plans

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Only weeks before move-in, students are booking two-week hotel stays and reserving Airbnbs. They’re deciding whether to keep or cancel their housing contracts and plane tickets, to travel to campus or to stay home this fall.

For the thousands of students from the 35 states and territories on New York’s travel advisory list, quarantine now rests on them.

Cornell’s announcement that it would no longer provide quarantine accommodations for those living on campus has sent students scrambling to figure out how — and where — they’ll start the fall. Other students were relieved when they heard the news — the policy change made the tough decision for them to stay home this semester.

Reeti Mangal ’24 of Houston will start her Cornell experience isolating in a Syracuse Airbnb with seven other first-year students she hasn’t met before.

After sifting through hotels that cost more than $3,000 for the two weeks and without family to stay with in the state, Mangal said splitting an Airbnb was more affordable. Each of the eight students will pay about $800 for the two weeks — a fraction of some hotel prices.

“At first, we didn’t really have any options, and I was kind of like, ‘I guess I’ll have to do online school,’” Mangal said. “That’s just not a good option for me. I tried that my senior year and I just don’t learn well in an online environment.”

Mangal coordinated the plans over Facebook with first-years who are flying in from areas that stretch from China to Florida and California. Because the students kept their original plane tickets for Aug. 17, the date Cornell originally told students to start their on-campus quarantine, the group will move into their dorms the day before classes start.

As the demand for quarantine lodging has surged in the Ithaca area, local hotels have stepped in to offer discounted rooms — and students are booking them.

The Clarion Inn Ithaca is providing two-week quarantine housing that costs about $950, and the hotel’s Cortland location is offering the same stay length for about $790. The bus travel service OurBus also partnered with hotels near Elmira and Corning, New York, to offer Cornell students discounted quarantine housing.

Kim Homik, vice president of operations for Inntel Hospitality, the company that owns the two Clarion Inns, said first-years make up about 70 percent of the Cornell students staying for the two weeks.

As of Wednesday, about 80 students from travel advisory states were planning to quarantine in the Clarion hotels. Rooms are still available, Homik said, but the Cortland Clarion Inn and Suites is almost full.

But many students can’t afford a two-week hotel stay, meaning low-income students will face the brunt of Cornell’s quarantine housing backtrack.

Henessy Pineda ’21 isn’t from a travel advisory state — she’s from New York — but she said she cried when she read the email announcing the policy change, feeling that Cornell was prioritizing its finances over its students.

“I felt like Cornell’s decision was so reckless,” Pineda said. “Now that Cornell released that statement about a week before people had to figure out who they wanted to stay with and pay for a hotel, it just falls unnecessarily on students of color and low-income students who cannot afford it and don’t have the funds to find a new route to Cornell.”

Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi encouraged students from travel advisory states to avoid last-minute plans and start the semester from home at the July 31 town hall. While some students are gearing up for a fully online term, for others, staying home isn’t an option.

Pineda, a Donlon Hall resident adviser, said she questioned whether or not to return to campus, even without a 14-day quarantine to plan out herself.

Because Cornell won’t monitor off-campus quarantining, Pineda said she felt students will lie about their self-quarantine, leaving her and other R.A.s exposed to the virus as they hand out room keys and interact with residents, just with an added pair of gloves and two masks.

But Pineda said she feels she doesn’t have the resources to thrive at home, where she lacks a quiet study space and the on-campus support to guide her through the law school application process this year.

“Though it would be safer to stay home, I want to go to law school and I just don’t know if I can sacrifice,” Pineda said. “What I’m dealing with is, do I choose my health or do I choose my academics? And right now, my academics are weighing higher. It’s just a lot easier to be on campus applying to these schools. It seems like a no-brainer to me.”

Now that Cornell isn’t guaranteeing quarantine housing for on-campus students, Pineda said she worries cases will spike and Ithaca won’t have the resources to care for community members exposed to the virus.

“I’m also just very torn because I just don’t feel like Cornell is thinking of my life. I feel very undersupported,” Pineda continued. “I want to go back, but I know that if I go back I’m going to be undersupported and just not cared for, which I never experienced at Cornell. This is the first time it’s very clear that’s the case.”

Leaving students’ plans in limbo, the quarantine policy change has rippled across the Cornell community, even beyond those living in residence halls.

Jordan Tralins ’23 plans to live in Greek housing this fall — and she was also set to quarantine there for two weeks after flying in from Florida.

But after Cornell flipped its quarantine policy and left students to figure it out, Tralins said her plans were thrown up in the air. Her chapter’s national organization advised the house to follow on-campus policies, and local leadership ultimately decided students had to find other quarantine housing that complies with New York State guidelines and Cornell’s policy change.

Now, over a week after Cornell’s announcement, Tralins is rushing to book new plans.

“That announcement changed our ability to quarantine in the house. It was pretty set. We had a schedule of when we were going to move in,” Tralins said. “It’s really wrong that some students who might not have the socioeconomic capabilities to randomly find 14-day housing would have to start online.”

Tralins said she’s thankful for the work Cornell has poured into its reopening plan, but she worries how the semester will unfold, without clear University public health guidelines for Greek housing. Those living in the house drafted mask and guest policies, Tralins said, wishing public health measures weren’t left up to 20-year-old students.

Even when University officials set the public health measures, not all students are compelled to come to Ithaca — even first-years who originally applied for a residential experience.

When David Baker ’24 plans to visit campus for the first time, it will be spring. The California first-year said paying for a hotel in a non-restricted state wasn’t feasible, and as August approached, Cornell’s reopening plan could shift at any moment, except for the social distancing measures.

Baker said he was already leaning toward staying home this fall before Cornell decided to reverse the on-campus quarantine housing policy. When he read the email, Baker said he was more relieved than disappointed, knowing he would no longer have to jump through hoops for a campus experience he felt he wouldn’t enjoy.

Staying home also meant Baker could save on room and board, and he canceled his housing contract the day Cornell announced the policy change.

“It made my decision easier,” Baker said. “It just felt like, even though it’s still complicated and overwhelming, I could simplify things a lot by staying home.”

Baker said he worried how he would make friends without in-person events meant to bring together new students. And with a shortened in-person fall semester (students will stay home after Thanksgiving), coming to campus didn’t feel worth it.

“The main reason one goes to campus is to be entrenched in the community and culture. Am I going to be able to do that when I get to Cornell?” Baker said. “I have friends here, and I can talk to them in a socially distant setting, whereas in a socially distant setting it’s hard to make new friends.”

But for Mangal, going through the planning and paying feels worth it, even as she worries campus will shut down. Mangal said she is bringing board games and cards to her Syracuse Airbnb to weather the quarantine with the seven other first-years.

“It’s kind of weird because I’ve never met them before, but we’re all going to be freshmen at Cornell so it should be fine,” Mangal said. “I definitely want to meet new people and settle into my classes. I don’t think that’s really possible on an online platform, or if it is possible, it’s a lot harder. We want to make sure we’re having a freshman year experience.”