Tent set up outside Court-Kay-Bauer dorms for students to get food and other supplies.

Ben Parker / Assistant Photography Editor

Tent set up outside Court-Kay-Bauer dorms for students to get food and other supplies.

August 31, 2020

As Classes Begin, Cornell’s Reopening Model Is Put to the Test

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In June, Cornell modeled for a potential campus reopening, when cases nation wide seemed to have plateaued nationally. But since then, the U.S. has seen almost 3 million more COVID-19 cases and 60,000 deaths.

During the past month, many schools, including several of Cornell’s peers in the Ivy League, decided to reverse plans for hybrid semesters and opt for entirely virtual learning. Many schools that suddenly changed their plans cited complications from rising COVID-19 cases nationwide, but Cornell has doubled-down on its plan, promising that it can work until Thanksgiving break.

With classes set to begin in two days, how does Cornell’s model hold up to reality?

According to Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, and the scientist behind Cornell’s model, the recent trend in school closures reinforces the University’s focus on noncompliance to social distancing and asymptomatic screening.

“I would say that [monitoring social gatherings and high density housing] was and continues to be a focus. The data that we’re getting now kind of allows us to understand that phenomena more,” Frazier said. “That particular aspect hasn’t hasn’t really changed any part of our plan. It just kind of highlights that that part of our plan is pretty important.”

Peter Frazier led the modeling effort cited by President Pollack in June as the motivation for reactivating campus. Since June, Frazier has published  two updates to the initial modeling.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Peter Frazier led the modeling effort cited by President Pollack in June as the motivation for reactivating campus. Since June, Frazier has published two updates to the initial modeling.

Currently, it’s too early to make sweeping generalizations about how the model has played out in reality, Frazier said.

According to Frazier, the recent events at other schools offer insight into which reopening strategies work and which ones don’t.

One of the schools that was forced to make an impromptu change of plans was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Within a week of in-person instruction, UNC saw two clusters — five or more cases in close proximity — of COVID-19 cases, and soon after, identified two more.

Frazier attributed this outcome to the lack of gateway screening and asymptomatic screening — UNC only tested students when they exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.

Duke University, just 10 miles away from UNC, also opened Aug. 10 but so far hasn’t reported nearly as many cases as UNC. As of Aug. 28, Duke had 15 active cases on campus; UNC has had 834 total positive cases since Aug. 12. Like Cornell, Duke is employing a strategy of gateway testing and asymptomatic screening.

Medical staff test patients for COVID-19 at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Aug. 28.

Pete Kiehart / The New York Times

Medical staff test patients for COVID-19 at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Aug. 28.

Across the board, universities have seen lower prevalence of COVID-19 in incoming students than Frazier anticipated in his early models.

The model predicted that 2 percent of the general student body would be positive for COVID-19 while 4 percent of students coming from states on New York’s travel advisory would be positive, Provost Michael Kotlikoff said at a Tompkins County Higher Education Town Hall on Aug. 18.

As of Aug. 18, the overall prevalence of COVID-19 is 0.06 percent while those from restricted states have a prevalence of 1 percent, according to Kotlikoff.

The recent developments in other colleges and universities haven’t spurred sweeping changes to the reopening plans, but it has reinforced the focus on monitoring undergraduates — both in the context of high density housing and social gatherings.

Both UNC and the Georgia Institute of Technology have released fairly detailed reports regarding the locations of their COVID-19 cases, and the data from these two institutions shows that undergraduates living in high density housing and engaging in social gatherings are significant risk factors in spreading COVID-19.

Since colleges nationwide reversed their fall plans, Cornell is now trying to ensure it has sufficient quarantine capacity. This change occurred before gateway testing began, and COVID-19 prevalence was lower than anticipated, but Cornell made this change to ensure it had sufficient quarantine capacity should more students than expected need it.

Testing frequency has also changed since the initial model was published in June. Three months ago, Frazier anticipated that Cornell would need to test students every five days to effectively control community spread. Now, undergraduates will be tested twice a week.

“The goal of the June 15 analysis was to inform a decision about starting the wheels in motion for residential campus and to try to evaluate whether we should start those wheels in motion or start different wheels in motion about virtual instruction and keeping people out of Ithaca,” Frazier said.

The Fischell Band Center served as the COVID testing site for gateway testing and will continue to conduct surveillance testing throughout the semester.

Ben Parker / Assistant Photography Editor

The Fischell Band Center served as the COVID testing site for gateway testing and will continue to conduct surveillance testing throughout the semester.

When creating the model in June, Frazier said that he and his colleagues understood that they would likely need to alter and refine the testing strategy as they approached the fall semester.

Even now, Frazier is monitoring the spread of the virus in Ithaca to inform decisions going forward. In particular, Frazier is paying attention to two key metrics: the trends with case counts and the local quarantine and isolation capacity.

Capacity to isolate and quarantine individuals became a focus following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) mandate that students from high risk states must quarantine for two weeks upon entering New York. However, not all hotel or dorm rooms meet the state’s mandate for quarantine — so careful attention must be given to these spaces to understand Cornell’s limitations on quarantining and isolating students.

While it is very unlikely that Ithaca will reach the capacity of its local healthcare system, Frazier is monitoring those limits.

“If you remember back to March and April in New York City, where there was a real concern that we were going to start running out of ventilators and ICU beds,” Frazier said. “So, you know, you want to look at capacity in local hospitals, you know, and again, I don’t think we’re going to come anywhere close to hitting that kind of a threshold, but it’s important, so you don’t want to ignore it.”

Frazier noted that his models assumed there would be some noncompliance to social distancing, but everyone needs to do their part to ensure a safe reopening.

“We’re all just holding our breath and just urge people to continue to comply with wearing masks and social distancing,” Frazier said. “We have to realize that things are different now and actions have consequences and just try to do our best. You know, we’re all in this together.”