September 12, 2020

SMITH | Reopening: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

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As I headed into my first in-person lecture since March, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in just as many months. They were wearing a mask, and the closest I could get to a reunion was an air hug from six feet. The professor wore a face shield and over half the class was joining us from online, but still it was good to be back. Just like the reopening plans, the results of hybrid or in-person learning have been mixed. Notre Dame and UNC Chapel Hill are among a number of schools that have moved to online learning in the wake of COVID-19 outbreaks. Cornell, however, is currently under the limit for the number of cases and remains open for the moment.

There is no perfect option when it comes to school reopenings this fall. States have made piecemeal rulings and both forms of learning come with pros and cons. An online approach is socially isolating, perhaps not as educational and even potentially dangerous. Given the dangers associated with in-person interactions, children in the child welfare system are cut off from the very interactions which have come to be relied upon for detection of mistreatment and have been confined at home with caregivers and relatives under the stresses associated with a global pandemic. The daycare system is another which has been stressed. Computer access and stable internet connection are not a given. Returning to in-person instruction at all ages would alleviate some of these issues (though the highlighted weaknesses in certain systems would not go away), however they also increase potentially life-threatening risk of infection in students, teachers/professors, parents and others.

The intricacies are head-spinning, and I’m not sure it’s fair to blame schools, especially colleges, for being in the wrong by offering some form of in-person instruction. It’s also not entirely up to the administration whether or not cases spike, as the pile of red solo cups I found on my sidewalk the other morning can attest. Stir crazy students are stretching their legs and months of quarantine have left self-discipline significantly weakened.  The term “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” comes to mind when considering schools’ reopening options. I am close with a number of students employed by the surveillance testing program, and am about to begin work there myself, so perhaps I have a bias. Cornell can offer all the free hand sanitizer and masks in the world but if we do not follow our end of the bargain, then things will not work. I do not reject the reopening-for-tuition trope.  A satire article on college reopenings resonated with me despite my understanding of Cornell’s thought process. However, I do know how many people were intending to return to Ithaca regardless, and believe the structure created by surveillance testing and the behavioral compact is better than none. Even writing this article, I find myself going back and forth.

I went to the Slope the other night to watch the sunset, and even though I was surrounded by masked faces and there was physical distancing, seeing people taking photos in the arches on West Campus and seeing the Slope dotted with people was a sight for sore eyes. After so much upheaval, the shred of normalcy hit that perfect note of rose-tinted college nostalgia I found myself thinking over in the middle of the summer. Yet, the balance between maintaining mental health and physical health, personal and public health,  is not always easy to strike at the moment, and I’m open to any suggestions.


Emma Smith is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Emmpathy appears every other Friday this semester.