September 7, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Students Will Not Bear the Greatest Cost of a Shutdown This Semester

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Despite the overwhelming awareness that this could all be over in a matter of days and despite the best efforts of students online to publicly shame those who break the rules, Cornell was moved to threat level yellow after a mere two days of classes — not by a group of students who contracted the disease in spite of Cornell’s ample countermeasures, but by a group of students who willfully ignored them.  I am sure these people understood the risk to themselves and, given the well-expressed fears by their fellow students online, I’m sure they understood the risk to the student body as well.  And, while I would like to believe the event that caused this cluster was an isolated incident, a rare deviation from the straightforward and essential guidelines we’ve all agreed to follow, frankly, you’d have to be living under a rock to believe that. We can all hear the music.

So, if the judgment of your peers, the requests of your university and the very real danger to the health of you and your friends are insufficient motivators to keep you out of a party this semester, then please consider the people who rely on Cornell for employment.

Because the fact of the matter is, a few more “get-togethers” gone wrong, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people here are unemployed overnight. Yes, unemployed. Without a job, without a stream of income, a.k.a. something necessary to feed, clothe and house oneself when one’s parents do not do so. This is the people who cook, clean and serve in the dining halls where you eat every day, the people who clean the classrooms and lecture halls, the people who clean the dorm bathrooms for you, the people who do maintenance around campus, and those with administrative jobs that cannot be done remotely. All those people will be without jobs, at least until February — perhaps much longer if Cornell begins layoffs to cover for the money they are hemorrhaging.

And it is not just Cornell employees. It is the countless small business owners who have been staying open by the skin of their teeth betting on this semester’s success. It is the Uber and Lyft drivers who ferry you around town, and it is the families of all these people.

I am not sure if you have ever taken the opportunity to really look around during your time here, but Ithaca, New York is not a hotbed of economic opportunity by any stretch of the imagination. There is not a surplus of entry-level jobs floating around to turn to if things go south, especially not this year. If these people lose their income, because the students here could not take a semester off from partying, there are a lot of consequences. Some of them might lose their homes, their cars, their savings. Some may not have savings. If they have kids, those kids might eat less. Those kids might end up without Christmas presents this year. Those kids might watch their parents suffer from depression. Newsflash, unemployment takes an enormous toll on mental health.

I’m sure you’ve noticed a lot of the staff here are not young people, and if they lose these jobs, not only will their retirement savings suffer, but they may need to dip into those savings to support themselves, delaying their retirement indefinitely because a handful of students couldn’t follow the rules.

The employees who make this university run are a part of our community just as much as any student is. I will die on that hill. Most of them will be here or have been here longer than any of us, and they will be here long after we are gone. They are definitely more a part of Cornell than certain freshmen who have busted in here like they own the place, publicly flaunting their inadvertent endangerment of the livelihoods of hundreds.

You interact with Cornell employees daily. You recognize their faces. They work incredibly — incredibly — hard, they smile and give you words of encouragement and they feed you every day of the week. If this campus shuts down, they will not be going back to Westchester or Long Island or Miami or Manhattan. You owe it to them to do everything in your power to keep this semester alive. What is a crappy semester for you has enormous implications for the lives of our staff here, and the college town community as a whole. How dare you. How dare any of you forget about what is at stake for them this fall.

I cannot help but feel that this would not be a problem if students here had a stronger sense of community. Kids would not be so willing to throw away somebody’s job or somebody’s life, just for a party, if they felt a connection to this place and these people beyond the prestige it confers onto them.

We need to stop treating Cornell like just one more stop on the long and predetermined railroad of privilege many of us have been riding since birth. Every school has frat parties, and every school has a U.S. News and World Report ranking. Understand that this place is more than those things. Try to leave it better than you found it. That starts with taking this semester seriously.

John Ashbrook is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.