When two students tested negative for the novel coronavirus in February, a Cornell Sun headline read: “Cornell campus deemed safe from international epidemic.” But headlines printed just a month later told a different story: Cornell suspends classes for the first time in history. Ivy League cancels sports. Campus to close. Students reel. Time cut short.
Within weeks, the novel coronavirus became the coronavirus and turned into “the virus” — college life punctuated by a grim backdrop of climbing cases, death tolls and economic crisis and by the mundane of ongoing prelims and job applications. As the virus evicted Cornell students from campus and dispersed them across the world, attending class no longer meant finding a seat in a lecture hall, talking around a seminar table or walking into a lab. It meant finding internet connection and an outlet.
Everyone has called 2020 — a year that began with a Cornell snow day and climate justice protests and exploded into a raging pandemic, a racial justice movement and decimating wildfires — unprecedented. But huddled behind Zoom screens, many experienced this historic year through mundane rituals.
Instead of laughing in lecture halls, running into friends in hallways and sharing lunch at Okenshields, students peered into their classmates’ homes and memorized their backgrounds — the unmade beds, the posters, the pets who nap behind their desks. Scrawling notes next to classmates and even high-fives became lost to stickers on the floor telling all to stand six feet apart.
The virus quietly shattered lives, now confined to four walls and hidden from public life. The numbers are numbing, the days melt together and the global loss has flattened even Cornell graduation and 21st birthdays into muted milestones.
Here is a glimpse — beyond Instagram stories and Zoom backgrounds — of what those lives actually looked like.
Jan. 21 – March 9: It wasn’t always like this
Attending Cornell didn’t always mean taking classes while cocooned at home and eating dining hall dinners from takeout boxes. In January 2020, students answered clicker questions in lecture halls, waited for free popcorn at Willard Straight Hall and sat around Libe Cafe.
Students rehearsed for a cappella and dance performances that would never happen. Hundreds packed into Bailey Hall — comfortably breathing the same air — to hear Saturday Night Live’s Vanessa Bayer’s life story and Madonna impression.
In January, fears of the coronavirus circulated within the international student community. Cornell Health messaged students from Wuhan, China, and encouraged them to visit the health center if they traveled from the city after winter break or were exposed to the virus. Many of these students wore masks around campus since the semester started.
But for most students, campus felt safe — even as study abroad students fled their programs weeks early, West Coast schools closed in early March and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Cornellians trudged along through classes, enjoyed a serendipitous snow day and occupied streets for fossil fuel divestment, seemingly spared from the virus’s threat between Ithaca trees and gorges.
March 10 – March 31: The floor gave out
But this reality quickly crumbled.
Concerns about the virus on campus reached a crescendo in early March (though later research showed it was spreading in the U.S. as early as February). On March 10, President Martha Pollack’s Tuesday evening email canceled all in-person classes after spring break, sowing panic and frustration across campus. And on March 13, two more weeks on campus became days; Cornell suspended classes for the first time ever and urged students to return home in an afternoon email that set the campus into heartbreak and chaos.
Students studying for prelims and planning for spring break rushed to pack storage boxes (and bars) and hug their friends goodbye in the blur of a mass campus evacuation. Without herds of students pouring down East Avenue between classes and bursting libraries, the Ithaca campus wasn’t a college, but a collection of empty buildings.
“I am a bridge player—not a very good one, but I do enjoy the game. In bridge, you are sometimes dealt a great hand: lots of high cards, distributed across the suits in an advantageous way,” President Martha Pollack wrote to the Cornell community four days after the University suspended classes. “Other times, you are dealt a terrible hand. The great hands are unquestionably more fun to play, but every bridge player knows that you have to play the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes, doing an outstanding job with a terrible hand can be incredibly rewarding.”
April 1 – May 23: A global grief through daily classes
As the virus raged on, Cornellians grieved. They mourned the loss of a convocation ceremony, leaving their Ithaca homes and study abroad trips cut short. They mourned lost jobs, loved ones who passed and worried for the sick. The numbers ticked up and up — cases, hospitalizations, deaths — to heights too high to actually fathom.
Cornell mass-purchased Zoom for all cornell.edu email addresses and gave professors two weeks to adapt their classes to be online. For the first time, classes became untethered from campus geography, as classrooms spanned the globe.
Administrators urged students to take time to process, as students struggled with mental health through isolation and grief. After immense pressure from students, the University announced an opt-in S/U option for all classes.
For many students, the final two months of the spring 2020 semester were a blur. Many woke up at dawn for 8 a.m. classes that became 5 a.m. classes on the West Coast, or even earlier abroad. Power outages kicked students out of online classes. Some Cornellians isolated as their states imposed stay-at-home orders, while others worried about maskless customers at the grocery store.
May 24 – Sept. 1: Periods of waiting
On the second day of summer break, police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Floyd’s death followed the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and over 1,400 other Black Americans at the hands of police in the past five years. Through grief, Cornellians marched. They planned protests against police brutality, flooding into the streets week after week. Demanding structural change, protesters pressed for long-awaited racial justice.
And the University kept students in limbo, as colleges across the country scrambled to craft fall semester plans and added new words to the pandemic lexicon: an in-person semester, a hybrid semester, an online semester.
Three reopening committees spent the summer weighing the options, producing a 97-page document and shaping a plan to bring all students back to campus, despite many advocating against it. Simultaneously, other universities reversed ambitious plans for in-person schooling as warnings of a second wave grew louder. Students packed their bags for move-in just days after a pre-enrollment date that had been postponed four times.
Sept. 2 – Dec. 21: ‘Can you hear me?’
The waiting wasn’t over — in the fall, students waited for biweekly test results, for the semester to end after a single day off and for a vaccine.
The fall semester was preceded by a coronavirus Canvas course, and the semester itself taught new vocabulary — “Daily Check” and “herd immunity” and “asynchronous.” The University released its model and boasted its success as positive campus cases stayed under 350, sending warning emails each time clusters cropped up and the campus slid into the yellow alert.
Although the Cornell administration pushed for an “in-person” semester, just a third of classes unfolded in classrooms.
Students Zoomed from their desks and beds in their dorms, apartments and childhood bedrooms, they told The Sun. They attended classes from bathrooms and kitchens, from laundromats and while getting STD tests at Cornell Health. They logged on from Wegmans and Target, while riding the TCAT buses and driving down the highway. They Zoomed while in line for COVID-19 tests, from hammocks on the Arts Quad and on walks across campus.
Writing a paper inside a library meant booking a study space and flashing the reservation at the entrance. Eating at a dining hall meant booking an Open Table slot for heaps of rice and tofu scooped into a takeout container and leaving the dining hall through a one-way exit. Meeting friends outside of roommates meant deciding to mask up and asking about their last negative test.
“I wanted to keep my pod/circle small but it also was pretty lonely to only be seeing the same three people outside of my apartment,” one student wrote, reflecting on the year in The Sun’s survey.
Cornell students and professors formed new routines centered around pandemic precautions. No longer trekking to campus to rush to discussion sections and lectures and wait in line for coffee at a bustling Libe Cafe, the 75 percent of enrolled students who lived on campus this fall walked up the hill to stick nose swabs up their nostrils twice a week.
Some students structured when they would leave their bedrooms around their biweekly surveillance tests — a hallmark of the University’s epidemiological model. And without the indistinct chatter of students on quads and in cafes, campus stood eerie and quiet, robbed of its usual energy.
Blasts of sound interrupted the campus quiet twice this fall: once in late September and once in early November. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 died, masked students gathered to mourn the legal and feminist icon. Then, after a breathless and drawn-out election week, students blasted music in the streets for a “joyous and sunshiney” celebration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
“The day Biden’s victory [was] announced was the most happy I have seen students at Cornell,” wrote one student. “It certainly [felt] like one weight of many was lifting off the shoulders of the community.”
Most other celebrations were small, if not canceled. “I’m still waiting on my birthday celebration from April,” one student wrote. Instead, they found joy in quieter gems: new hobbies and deepened friendships.
“I lived in a house with six of my closest friends and we would cook for each other and watch TV together and complete the Sunday crossword together,” another wrote. “Occasionally, we would dress up and take pictures and dance.”
Students took up yoga and biking, painting and mask sewing, cocktail making and sourdough baking. They listened to podcasts and watched Korean dramas. They checked items off the 161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do, went on Zoom dates, learned French and wore mostly sweats.
Now, they’ve submitted their finals from home. And until the start of the spring semester, students will just wait.