Anil Oza / Sun Science Editor

At the virtual University Assembly meeting, on Aug. 21, members of the U.A. expressed concern regarding various facets of residential life and reopening.

August 23, 2020

Kotlikoff: Cornell to Consider Shutdown If Virus Count Reaches 250 in 1 Week

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Following concerns over campus reopening and the state of residential life, Provost Michael Kotlikoff met with members of the University Assembly Friday to field questions on housing, testing and potential triggers for a campus closure.

At the meeting, the provost made the first public commitment to a threshold that could cause a campus shutdown, stating that over 250 cases in seven days could prompt discussions about shuttering campus. Students and other community members have been asking for such a statistic in recent weeks at various town halls, but this was the first time that the administration spelled out what it would take to shut down campus.

“If we have [that many] new cases in a week, that’s a trigger to say ‘consider shut down.’ Then we look at all the other parameters, we look at the trends, and we make a formal decision,” Kotlikoff said. “Health and safety of our community is number one, if it looks like it’s going in a direction where we’re getting community spread and we’re not controlling it we will shut down.”

Tied to the discussion of a campus shutdown is Cornell’s COVID-19 dashboard, which will be released Aug. 24.

Kotlikoff also discussed Cornell’s COVID-19 dashboard, which is set to be released Monday. The dashboard, which will be similar to those released by other schools, will contain updates on Cornell’s testing capacity, confirmed cases, local health capacity and quarantine capacity.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is address [the anxiety of faculty, staff and the community members] by having as much transparency as possible,” Kotlikoff said. “That dashboard will be completely transparent about all the tests that are done.”

The dashboard will provide the community with insight on the status of the virus on campus. The dashboard will be color coded as green, yellow, orange or red: Each color represents a more dire status with red indicating a campus closure.

This dashboard, and the accompanying testing program, is part of what separates Cornell from other institutions that failed to reopen effectively, according to Kotlikoff.

The most glaring example of such a failure was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,  which reversed plans to have a hybrid semester when four COVID-19 clusters were found on campus under two weeks of in-person instruction students being on campus. UNC was doomed to fail from the start because it had no entry or surveillance testing — the university only tested symptomatic students, Kotlikoff said.

“A lot of the big schools have just decided ‘We’re going to open and roll the dice,’” Kotlikoff said. “There are going to be some disasters out there.”

Additionally, Kotlikoff addressed the demands North and South Campus resident advisers made last week, stating that he and other administrators had earlier engaged in a “terrific meeting” with RA representatives.

The concerns expressed by the RAs focused mainly on better communicating available resources — including personal protective equipment — and addressing the stress that RAs face, according to Kotlikoff. On Wednesday, over 50 RAs skipped virtual training meetings in response to what they saw as staffing shortages, insufficient resources and inconsistent policies.

“The second issue, really, I think relates to the stress that the RAs are under, some of which precedes COVID and some of which, of course, relates to COVID,” Kotlikoff said. “That is that they are somewhat understaffed, seeing more students responsible for more students concerned about their conditions.”

The provost elaborated that the University is continually reassessing the implications of reopening so that decisions can be made based on data, rather than emotions.

“We’re going to be looking at the data on a daily basis and making decisions based on data, not on somebody saying ‘Oh my god, look what happened over there’ or ‘What makes you think you can do this?’” Kotlikoff said.

Another concern brought up by U.A. member David Hiner was student compliance with social distancing measures.

Kotlikoff responded by pointing out that all enrolled students had to sign the behavioral compact, complete a training video and a subsequent test. There will also be 100 faculty members, many of whom are coaches and athletic staff, and around 300 students walking around campus and surrounding areas promoting good public health practices — which was part of Cornell’s COVID-19 Student Peer Health Ambassadors Program that was released Aug. 3.

The provost also explained that the models utilized to inform reopening do not assume 100 percent compliance to social distancing measures, and that testing frequency is intended to detect infections early enough in order to avoid community spread.