Niko Nguyen / Sun Design Editor

$20 million in COVID-19 expenses. Twenty-two emails from President Martha Pollack. Here are the numbers that defined the year.

December 31, 2020

2020, Reviewed: This Year In Numbers

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The year ticked by in numbers: on COVID-19 case trackers, through unemployment spikes, on electoral maps.

So The Sun tallied it: the number of nasal swabs, of gap years taken, of COVID-19 economic losses. From the four days off between August and December to the dozens of campus coronavirus updates, here’s the year in numbers. (This data is accurate at the time of publication.)

Surveillance testing: ‘Getting in-person instruction right’

In August, President Martha Pollack wrote that though the University’s epidemiological model predicted there could be more than 1,000 coronavirus cases on campus, reopening was the safest option. But over the course of the fall semester, Cornell reported 351 cases, about a third of the predicted number. 

As tens of thousands of coronavirus cases emerged on college campuses, Cornell declared it had successfully contained the virus as early as September, attributing its success to student behavior — and testing.

“All the more noteworthy are the stories of campuses getting in-person instruction right — those institutions using science and technology to keep their students and neighbors safe, all while advancing their educational missions,” Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff wrote in a Sept. 30 Washington Post op-ed. 

At the height of testing, Cornell administered 30,000 tests weekly, bringing the total number of nasal swabs processed by the College of Veterinary Medicine center to 473,460 by the end of the semester. 

Cornellians accounted for more than 80 percent of the 570,975 tests administered in Tompkins County, but only for 17 percent of the 2,031 total county positive cases. Just under 2 percent of the county’s population tested positive. Over 25 million tests have been administered across New York State this year, reporting just under 1 million positive cases.

Since November, though, cases climbed across the county. An outbreak at the Oak Hill Manor Nursing Home in Ithaca infected more than 50 residents and staff members and claimed the lives of 12 residents. In December, the resident death toll more than tripled.   

Even as virus counts reach record highs in the county and nationwide, Cornell plans to welcome even more students back to campus this spring.  

“When this started the premise was that students would not and could not behave responsibly,” Kotlikoff told The New York Times in early December. “I think we’ve proven that this is not so.”

Campus experience

Being a Cornell student this fall didn’t necessarily mean studying on Cornell’s campus — only three-quarters of enrolled students studied in Ithaca, the rest from childhood bedrooms and in “Study Away” programs

On-campus housing and dining shrunk, and foot traffic fell to a trickle. Okenshields, Cornell’s only Central Campus dining hall, closed less than a month into the semester after its normal service of about 2,000 students a day plummeted to about 350.  

Some students decided not to enroll at all, avoiding a semester that largely glowed from their laptops. Undergraduate enrollment was at 95 percent of its target, and though Cornell hit more than 99 percent of its target enrollment for new first-year students, more than 120 first-years took a gap year.

Even students in Ithaca took classes mostly stuck behind computers: Two-thirds of classes were online, as Cornell shaped its roster around professor preferences and 600 classrooms fit for social distancing. 

With most of Cornell’s 3,200 “instructional spaces” empty, on-campus energy usage dipped 6 percent below 2019 levels, according to Mark Howe, director of utilities, distribution and energy management. Increased ventilation needs tempered the energy decrease caused by vacant buildings and milder weather this fall.

News of semi-finals and online classes trickled through email: Cornell sent 145 coronavirus-related updates since January, from sending students home to behavioral compact details. Pollack emailed students 22 times, seven alone in March.   

University expenses

Bringing students to campus came at a cost: Operating on a stretched budget, Cornell projected $20 million in coronavirus expenses for the 2021 fiscal year to fund its mammoth testing program, personal protective equipment, gallons of hand sanitizer and other operations. The University also projected undergraduate financial aid to increase by more than 30 percent compared to last year, as the virus has ravaged the economy. (Cornell distributed its entire $12.8 million from the CARES Act to student aid.)

As increased need and enrollment dips have strained Cornell’s budget, the Ithaca and Cornell Tech campuses projected $255 million in coronavirus losses. In response, Cornell froze hiring and temporarily reduced employee retirement benefits. 

Election week in numbers 

Campus burst to life on election Saturday after days of ballot counting ended in President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Many Cornell students mailed in absentee ballots or voted early, leaving the Election Day polling locations quiet at City Hall and Alice Cook House.

Nearly 80 percent of registered voters in Tompkins County cast their ballots in the election — residents cast 45,845 votes, following nationwide trends of record-high voter turnout.