August 13, 2020

LORENZEN | The Paradox of the Fall Semester

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As Cornell administrators face rising concerns from the Cornell and Ithaca community over their reopening plans, they have repeatedly argued that their plans are supported by research which proves there will be fewer infections in a hybrid semester than online. This conclusion relies on a foundational assumption which has been invoked time and time again — that students will return to the Ithaca area regardless of whether Cornell is in-person or online, and Cornell can only properly test and monitor its students if the semester is in-person. By arguing that Cornell must reopen because students will return anyway, the administration has crafted a central paradox for its reopening plans this semester, which has been reflected in its recent convoluted messaging to the student body. For the administration, both the problem and the solution to managing the virus this fall is students returning to Ithaca.

Before we consider the paradox wrought by the administration’s logic, let’s first consider the assumption itself. That Cornell students will return to Ithaca regardless of the university’s decision holds seeming empirical support through the survey data collected last June — yet there are myriad problems with this data. Firstly, students were asked their intentions to return under an online semester without being provided with much information by the administration. Of course students will say they plan to go back this fall — that’s what we’ve wanted from the moment we were sent home. But at the time when we were asked our plans under these various hypotheticals, we had little information. What would an online versus a hybrid semester look like? Could we get out of our leases? Would it be safe to return? When asking students’ plans for the fall without providing further information, it is unlikely that you are actually receiving accurate responses from students.

Secondly, this survey data was collected prior to a variety of major changes in the spread of the virus this summer. July saw cases skyrocketing in states around the country. Many colleges even reversed their plans as a result of such unexpected breakouts. Most of us, perhaps naively, expected things to be better by the fall, not worse. Thirdly, Cornell did no research on potential data changes should they attempt to offer greater support to students. For example, if Cornell had announced that returning to campus was strongly discouraged for public health reasons (with the exception of those with extenuating circumstances which require them to return) and that it would offer legal advice to those seeking to break their off-campus leases, the results may have been completely different. Such a message alone could have made a massive difference. Ironically enough, Cornell has full confidence that its messaging can persuade college students — reputed for their rule-abiding nature — to abide by the Behavioral Compact; but apparently, convincing students to stay home if possible is not feasible.

Setting aside the various issues in this assumption, let’s nonetheless choose to believe it entirely for a moment. The administration is confronted with a problem — students will return no matter what, and given the social nature of young adults, there will be considerable risk of virus transmission between students and to the larger Ithaca community. Therefore, there are two necessary strategies which must be implemented to decrease the rate of transmission as much as possible. First, Cornell must impose strict behavioral restrictions on students and robust testing protocols. Secondly, Cornell must encourage as few students as possible to return to campus to decrease the overall risk.

Cornell has done an excellent job with the first strategy, as it has created the Behavioral Compact and required biweekly tests for students. It is in the second strategy where the paradox is found.

Cornell has taken the position that these two strategies are somewhat mutually exclusive — that it could not effectively impose behavioral restrictions and require testing if it had gone completely online, and therefore had to reopen with hybrid instruction. This position is curious given that with the recent release of course modalities many students have found that their classes will mostly, if not all, be online this fall even if they return to campus. So under a “hybrid” experience in which your classes are all online anyway, student behavior can be effectively regulated and testing imposed, yet under an online semester, it cannot be? If the main difference for most students between a “hybrid” semester and an online semester is just the name, what makes a “hybrid” semester more effective than an online one in regulating student behavior? The notion that the two strategies available to Cornell — restrictions/testing and de-densification — are somehow in conflict feels arbitrary given the slim difference between hybrid and online instruction. Moreover, if students had known that the majority of their classes would be online even if they returned when they answered that survey back in June, would the results have been the same?

Cornell’s recent reversal of its decision to provide quarantine housing to students arriving from states under the New York State Travel Advisory reveals further consequences of this paradox. The 1,300 students affected by this shift now “are encouraged to begin their semester remotely at their permanent residence” or as President Pollack said even more directly in her recent interview with the Ithaca Voice, “we’re discouraging students from the quarantine states to return.” As The Sun’s recent editorial argues, this last minute shift created a dangerous dynamic which sent students scrambling; even further, it reflected the core contradiction of Cornell’s decision. Cornell encouraged its students to return, so that they could be safely monitored. Cornell then realized that this return was a logistical nightmare for a certain student population and reversed course, encouraging students to remain home. There are two problems here. Firstly, the rabbit cannot necessarily be put back into the hat — many students who had planned to leave home and already booked travel arrangements cannot break them, causing them to take on massive hotel costs or even worse, skirt the required quarantine. Secondly, Cornell began its argumentation on the assumption that it could not discourage students from returning to Ithaca, and now, they are trying to do exactly that because their planning broke down in the eleventh hour.

The administration is doing their best under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and we should all be thankful for their work. Yet, we also must acknowledge that the central paradox of their plans for this semester is generating chaos. The core problem Cornell faced in devising its plans was that students would return to Ithaca no matter what they did. The assumption of the sheer size of that problem had faults, but it was true to some extent. The solution could have been to allow those students for whom it was absolutely necessary to return and take in-person courses — students unable to remain in their homes for personal or financial reasons, students without technological access, international students, students with majors which cannot function online, graduating seniors in need of a class only offered in-person, etc. The university then could have encouraged the rest of the student body to remain home and take online courses.

Instead, the university believed that it could not discourage students from returning and could only regulate their behavior if it offered some semblance of in-person classes. Consequently, we have a paradoxical semester upon us. A semester with “hybrid” teaching in which many students have almost all their classes online. A semester where students were encouraged to return and then soon after, encouraged to remain home at the last minute due to quarantine housing issues. A semester where college students are being asked to return to college, but, for the rightful sake of public health, college devoid of the experiences they associate with it — the social interaction which forges the educational serendipity of collegiate life. A semester which is, quite simply, filled with confusion.

The administration is relying on minds far brighter and more knowledgeable than mine. Every part of the university is working tirelessly to make this semester work. We should be — and I am — grateful. This semester can still be a real success with responsible student behavior. Yet, it is also worth acknowledging that so much of this chaos — as painful as it would have been to lose out on an in-person semester for many of us — could have been avoided if the initial assumption of students automatically returning to Ithaca had not been considered locked in stone. It is worth acknowledging that there is a fundamental paradox when the problem was students returning to campus and the solution was to encourage them, even further, to return.

Andrew V. Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this summer.