About a month into an in-person fall semester that some thought would never happen, Cornell has seen just a few coronavirus cases and — so far — has kept students safe during a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
As the weather gets colder — forcing more gatherings inside (experts say the virus spreads more easily indoors) — there’s no guarantee that another outbreak isn’t on its way. But as Cornell approaches the halfway point of the semester, the University’s bold reopening plan has proven to be one of the most successful in the country.
President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post Sept. 30 detailing why Cornell has succeeded, and a Good Morning America segment showed masked students, spaced out lecture halls and a campus that has managed to contain the virus’ spread thanks to a rigorous pooled testing program.
“When we first announced that we were going to be on campus and all the other schools weren’t, I was saying to my parents and my friends, ‘Either they’re doing something very right or very wrong,’ because it’s very uncharted territory,” said Ellie Fassman ’24.
Cornell saw only seven positive cases last week, and just over 100 confirmed positives since classes started Sept. 2. Cornell is far outperforming the model it used to plan for the semester, which projected 1,254 cases, largely because students are wearing masks and social distancing, debunking the narrative, to some extent, that college students can’t comply with safety regulations.
Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, who led the creation of the modeling that guided the plan, said the June 15 model assumed that Cornell would test everybody once every five days, but undergraduates — “the group in which it seems that there is the most amount of transmission” — are now getting tested twice a week. Frazier said testing undergraduates more frequently has been more effective than a blanket testing requirement.
In addition to more frequent testing, a lower-than-expected transmission rate could also explain the low positive case count.
“I attribute that to partly luck, but also partly that people are doing a good job of wearing masks and not having large social gatherings,” Frazier said. “Everybody’s pitching together and doing a good job.”
Frazier added that when working on the various models over the summer, his team tried to make conservative projections “because [with] something as dangerous as this, it’s better to be conservative than to be too aggressive.”
A few other factors contributing to the low prevalence of positive cases are high rates of testing compliance, the effectiveness of adaptive testing (a testing method that can more quickly test a whole social circle than traditional contacting tracing), rapid turnaround of test results and that the in-person semester will be shorter than the full 16 weeks that the model assumed.
Other universities and colleges that want to mimic Cornell’s COVID-19 approach in the future may not be able to: Additional factors working in Cornell’s favor include the school’s remote location and the ability to run its own testing operation.
“Understandably, our approach may not be feasible for every university,” Pollack and Kotlikoff wrote in their Washington Post op-ed. “Cornell is fortunate to have the expertise and resources to create and support its own testing lab.”
While other universities had disastrous reopenings that led to massive outbreaks and cancellations of in-person plans, Cornell is one of a handful of schools that has made a return to campus work. After a chaotic start in which Ithaca College reversed course on an in-person plan, Cornell walked back a plan to provide quarantine housing and a 39-case cluster forced the University into a “yellow” alert level, administrators are declaring the fall 2020 plan a success — for now.
“When people said that college students couldn’t possibly behave maturely enough to respect public health needs in this pandemic, they didn’t know Cornellians!” Pollack wrote on Instagram on Sept. 30.
Still at alert level “green” after the brief stint at “yellow” made some question the decision to bring students back, Cornell took steps recently to open gyms, allow student organization meetings and permit student athletes to gather in small groups.
“We have stepped up to the difficult challenge, modifying our daily lives and remaining focused on the impacts of our collective actions,” Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi wrote in an email to students on Sept. 29. “We still have a long road ahead before we can declare success, but as I’ve said before: I believe in you, and I believe in us.”
Students back in Ithaca and employees with jobs who otherwise would be without work are among the winners of the reopening. So are local businesses that rely on students for a huge portion of their revenue — Cornell is responsible for around 20 percent of Tompkins County’s economic activity, and that figure is way higher for shops and restaurants in Ithaca.
But the semester still poses new challenges: Most classes are online, campus is less lively and students are struggling with mental health. And many people paid a steep price for this semester to happen: Locals left out of the loop, professors who had to make tough decisions about whether or not to teach in person and some staff — like resident advisers, who complained of unsafe conditions and briefly went on strike in August — have faced the negative consequences of the bold move to bring students back.
For example, one Statler Hotel employee quit, saying that they felt unsafe at the hotel, which the University is using to house students who test positive for the virus.
Just a few days into the semester, when it seemed like Cornell was going to easily blow past the 100 case mark, which would have triggered a state-enforced two-week shutdown, some Ithaca residents said they didn’t feel like Cornell had their safety in mind.
Marilyn Tebor Shaw ’76, a lawyer who has lived in the Bryant Park neighborhood near Collegetown for 10 years, said that this summer she was dreading students’ return for the first time. She graduated from Cornell, worked for a year in the judicial administrator’s office and sent two kids to the University, but worried that bringing students back from hotspot states would lead to virus outbreaks.
“There was a feeling that because the kids are back we now have to confine ourselves to our homes,” Tebor Shaw said. “I felt that way, I still feel that way. We don’t go to the grocery store. People go to the grocery stores out of town so we don’t have to shop where Cornell students are shopping.”
Many students on social media urged their friends to consider the local population, posting that failing to follow safety protocols could put thousands of community members at risk. Some also criticized the Cornell plan as unnecessarily endangering Ithacans.
In July, when students started moving into Collegetown apartments, Tebor Shaw thought there was no way the reopening plan would work. She said she saw students walking in big groups without masks. But soon after SUNY Oneonta, less than 100 miles from Ithaca, shut down and a cluster of cases among student athletes forced Cornell into alert level “yellow,” Tebor Shaw said “everything changed.”
“I was really impressed when I looked at the number of cases that Cornell had compared to other colleges, and I said ‘this is working’ and the anxiety went away,” said Tebor Shaw, who added that she was extra worried since she was ill in the spring and part of an at-risk population. “Was I as happy as when there was one case in Tompkins County? No, we were living in a nice, really safe bubble here that we fought hard for through being quarantined. … I started to be proud of Cornell, that whatever they were doing, they were keeping the numbers down.”
In a video with other local leaders welcoming students back in August, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said students are a crucial part of the city, which had successfully kept its virus case count very low over the summer.
“All of you play such an important role in helping us to continue the success that we’ve had so far,” Myrick said. “So as long as we wear our mask, we keep our distance, we take care of ourselves, we’ll be taking care of our neighbors too.”
For some students like Fassman, living in Ithaca and having an almost-normal start to her freshman year is a pleasant surprise.
“I’m kind of debating whether I should say surprised or not because there have been so many restrictions and policies that are totally justified that have helped us be able to stay on campus, so I guess I’m grateful for that too,” Fassman said.
Logan Schuh ’22 didn’t think students would comply with social distancing to the extent that they have, and expected that the school would inevitably have to close down as the virus spread.
“I figured it just wouldn’t happen and then the community wouldn’t take it seriously and we’d have a bunch of cases,” Schuh said.
But with case counts low and a testing program that is making the “new normal” work, Cornell students have about the closest possible thing to a normal semester given the national circumstances. More than half of classes are online, big parties are mostly a relic of the past and nobody will be packing Lynah Rink anytime soon. But the Collegetown Bagels patio is lively, students dealt with another Student Assembly elections controversy and Klarman Hall is open (more quietly, and without Temple of Zeus soup) for studying.
The mayhem at schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in August and September made the plan to keep thousands of students in Ithaca seem like a long shot. But a month in, it’s working.
“People have been doing so good so far and I worry that people will get tired or will put their guard down,” Frazier said. “It’s important to remember that we are in a pandemic and COVID-19 is super dangerous so just keep up what you’ve been doing.”
Correction: Marilyn Tebor Shaw ’76 lives in the Bryant Park neighborhood about a block from Collegetown, not technically in Collegetown.