August 19, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Should Pay Closer Attention to its Own Reopening Model

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The Cornell reopening model hinges on two factors: Students will return to Ithaca, as found in survey results, and Cornell has no jurisdiction over students who live off-campus, making testing for COVID-19 difficult if the campus is closed. Testing is integral to their model, as it should be, and inability to test off-campus students would mean COVID-19 could and would spread, potentially largely undetected.

These factors are contestable, but let’s assume for a moment the model works, at least within its own framework. The model demands testing, testing and more testing within the Cornell community to keep the virus from spreading. It, of course, takes into account the relationship of the campus to the broader area: “We were surprised to see that the outside infections had such a large effect on results. Indeed, they are essentially the driving factor in infections.” By “outside infections” the model is referring primarily to infections caught locally, not the (smaller) number of infections that will arrive with incoming students. If the University is confident about this model, why aren’t they making testing more accessible to the “outside” population whom their model deems “the driving factor in infections” in order to bring down cases? If anything, local testing has recently become less accessible; the Cayuga Health Sampling Site at the Ithaca Mall now requires scheduling and advance registration. Of course, the mall testing site is not nearly enough (it is not even in Ithaca but in Lansing). There should be a few easily accessible testing sites in Ithaca alone, and several more in Tompkins county.

Concerns about the narrowness of the model were raised by Barbara Lifton and her constituents, and the data science researchers created an expanded model which involves Greater Ithaca (Ithaca excluding Cornell). While the new model reiterates the point of the initial — no matter what happens with the reopening situation it is better than the alternative — it does make one consider the effect of Cornell beyond its immediate environs. Here’s a thought experiment: Greater Ithaca and Lansing fare surprisingly well while Covid-19 spreads further away, started by workers who cannot afford to live closer to campus. In this scenario would Cornell recuse itself of any responsibility and pat itself on its broad stolen-land-grant-back?

Recently Cornell backtracked on their plans to provide quarantine housing for students on the New York Travel Advisory list; there were suddenly too many students from too many places carrying too much risk and, not knowing what to do, Cornell went with the best value option. The model relies on very few students having Coronavirus before they arrive on campus, and these cancellations could complicate the model’s predictions. I have to wonder, again, is Cornell even interested in following guidance from its own scientific model?

Cornell University has money. It has access to billions of dollars through its endowment and is not making a serious attempt to pull money from it. Cornell has access to multi-millionaires and billionaires who regularly donate to the school, yet there has been no fundraising campaign to ask for their help. Some of these donors could easily make rapid testing available throughout the region, or write a check to the city government to help alleviate the tax burden of local businesses and small local landlords who would suffer if the school were to be closed this semester. After all, let’s not forget that college towns do not exactly have diversified economies, and the amount of spending done by students and their parents keeps them afloat. Universities, as tax-exempt institutions, do not substantially contribute to the tax base of the towns they reside in; Cornell does not even pay enough to cover its own on-campus fire services. 

Cornell made the case for reopening based on a model with questionable framework, and it makes a second mistake by refusing to be directed by its own model. The decisions Cornell has been making suggest that, even during a pandemic, it is guided by bettering their financials through its usual routines; keeping costs down while increasing student tuition and housing expenses, all while ignoring science.


Caroline Byrne ’98 is a member of the Community Life Commission for the City of Ithaca, and works part time as a research assistant for the Survey Research Institute at Cornell University. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.