Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Classes in the spring will remain primarily out of the classroom, as was the case this fall.

December 10, 2020

Most Courses Will Be Taught Online This Spring. Here’s How Cornell Decided the Roster.

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Cornell was one of few universities to invite all of its undergraduates back to campus this fall for a semester void of bustling lecture halls and packed seminar rooms — but classes have unfolded mostly online for reasons beyond faculty resistance or public health concerns. 

College of Engineering faculty mathematically modeled seating capacity in classrooms and found that only around 600 spaces on Cornell’s campus were fit for socially distanced teaching under state guidelines. Constrained by space and other factors, the same modeling is propelling the University into a spring semester with only a slight uptick in in-person classes.  

Six foot distancing cut classroom capacity to about 20 percent of the original limits, capping most in-person classes to 50 students, according to Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education. Those limitations, along with faculty choice, mean Cornell will offer around 65 percent of classes either online or with hybrid instruction this spring.

Deciding which courses professors could teach with masked and distanced students involved more than the registrar. College of Engineering professors, University architects, department heads and engineering and architecture students stepped in to develop classroom capacities and shape the course roster, University architect Margaret Carney told The Sun in an email.

Engineering faculty estimated how many socially distanced student seats could squeeze into each of more than 3,200 potential instructional spaces — including some that aren’t traditionally used as classrooms, such as building atriums. 

To count the exact number of total seats available for in-person instruction, University architects then created seating plans for each classroom that followed the capacity limits, configuring them around features including chalkboards and doorways. 

Taking the drawings and models of the engineers and architects into account, Nishii said Cornell later distributed in-person classroom space to departments, factoring in historical class sizes and their number of courses. The departments then decided which classes to hold between four walls and which on Zoom.  

But fall and spring course modalities are constrained by more than the number of classrooms that can hold socially distanced students. Whether the class is a seminar or a lecture matters — classes that rely on small group discussions are more likely to be taught online so students can better hear each other, according to Nishii. But ultimately, faculty themselves choose if they are comfortable teaching in-person.  

A summer University survey found that about a third of faculty weren’t interested in teaching in-person classes, a third were “open to doing it if conditions were deemed to be safe,” and about a third were “willing and anxious to teach in person,” said Provost Michael Kotlikoff.  

“We knew there were many legitimate reasons why faculty might feel uncomfortable teaching in person,” Nishii wrote. “Our data suggested that over 40 percent of faculty may be in elevated risk categories, many faculty live with or care for individuals who are in elevated risk categories, and faculty were facing significant challenges balancing work and family responsibilities due to the closure of daycare centers and K-12 schools.”

Though Cornell is running most courses online during both semesters, students do not appear deterred from returning to campus: Around 75 percent of enrolled Cornell students studied in Ithaca this fall, and the University anticipates an additional 1,500 students will return in the spring.