Two weeks ago, Cornell broke its record for the most COVID cases in a single day on campus, only to break twice more within a week.
From March 22 to March 28, Cornell saw 112 new cases of COVID — more than a third of the total cases on campus in the fall.
The most recent spike in cases, which has made up Cornell’s third time triggering the yellow alert level, has brought on the most stringent set of regulations on campus. The announcement changing alert level acknowledged the possibility of a campus shutdown and since then the University has enforced stricter policies for missing surveillance tests and relegated one portion of the student body to virtual instruction.
The severity of the recent spike was unique, the last two times the University increased its alert level — in September and in February — the seven day average of cases fell within four days of the announcement. With the most recent spike, cases steadily increased for 12 days before declining.
Cases in recent weeks have also largely been students, with 93 percent of cases throughout the month of March being students.
In the email announcing the increase in alert level on March 19, President Martha Pollack indicated that much of the recent surge in cases was the result of students gathering in groups.
“A disturbing increase in the number of COVID-19 cases within our student body has forced the university to move to COVID-19 Alert Level Yellow,” the email read. “Even more disturbing than the number of new cases is what is behind those numbers: a blatant disregard by some students for the public health requirements contained in the Behavioral Compact that each of you have agreed to uphold.”
Despite the message that students were causing campus cases to climb, which could threaten to close campus spaces, cases among students continued to increase following the announcement.
The University aimed to crack down on these cases by moving the MBA program to virtual instruction after it saw nearly 60 cases, revoking access to Canvas and campus WiFi for students who miss surveillance tests and reducing lounge capacity in some dormitories.
The moves have garnered concern from members of the Cornell community, with some students living on campus fearing that reducing lounge space could force more students to crowd into a smaller number of spaces, like dorm rooms.
Restricting access to campus, University WiFi and Canvas was also a stark change to previous University policy, which simply required that students schedule a test after missing their designated testing day. While the policy was just implemented, it was initially recommended by the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options in June of 2020.
“We agree that the testing has been what has allowed Cornell to be as successful as it has been,” said Frank Kruppa, public health director of Tompkins County. “It’s available, it’s free. We would encourage every student to please get tested on the frequency that the university is asking.”
While measures like locking students out of Canvas offer an additional stressor, Kruppa said there needed to be a balance between public health measures for COVID and mental health concerns.
“They’re difficult decisions to make, and there’s there’s balance that you have to weigh,” he said. “We need to be prepared for the consequences of those decisions and addressing mental health concerns needs to be at the top of the list.”