Following Cornell’s announcement that it would require students to be vaccinated in the fall, the administration held a virtual town hall on Thursday to answer questions from the Cornell community.
During the town hall, President Martha Pollack, along with other University administrators, discussed the University’s plans to distribute vaccines, logistics for an in-person fall semester, the preservation of certain remote working benefits and prioritizing the on-campus student experience.
Pollack kicked off the event by celebrating Cornell’s return to the green alert level and the start of planning for a vaccination rollout on campus. Despite these reasons for hope, Pollack urged caution as New York State continues to face thousands of new cases daily.
“It is essential that we not let our guard down to tomorrow. Most members of our community are still not vaccinated,” Pollack said. “For a while longer, we need everyone to keep doing everything we can do. Wear your mask, get tested, do your Daily Check.”
According to Provost Michael Kotlikoff, the University is hoping to begin vaccine distribution on campus as soon as possible. On April 15, the University is participating in the Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Medical Center “College Student Vaccination Day,” which will allow students throughout the county to receive the vaccines.
Acknowledging that certain individuals would qualify for vaccine exemptions, Kotlikoff emphasized the importance of all students to get the vaccine as soon as possible to protect those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons.
“Vaccination doesn’t just protect the vaccinated, it protects the unvaccinated as well,” Kotlikoff said. “By achieving herd immunity, we protect everyone.”
The town hall accepted questions from the audience through the Zoom chat feature, which was moderated by Dean of Faculty Prof. Charlie Van Loan, computer science. One of the questions reflected a sentiment likely on most students’ minds — the return of larger events like sports games and performances.
Responding to a question submitted by a student, Gary Koretzky, vice provost of academic integration, stated that as more data has become available about the vaccine, signs point to vaccines preventing transmission. However, he emphasized that large events will probably not come back all at once.
Another topic of discussion was how much of current online course formats will remain for the fall semester. Prof. Lisa Nishii, industrial and labor relations, vice provost for undergraduate education, said that students should expect to return to in-person, pre-COVID instruction.
“It’s been an incredibly difficult year and being able to return to the classroom and interact with faculty will be really great for students,” Nishii said.
She added that while students would lose benefits like recorded lectures, the impacts of virtual learning on mental health as well as faculty performance outweighed the costs.
Retaining some of the conveniences of work-from-home was a concern for faculty as well. Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, noted that the University was discussing ways to preserve that flexibility for instructors, including the possibility of making remote work an option for some faculty and staff.
However, Opperman noted that because Cornell is a residential institution, the University’s top priority would be the student experience. Decisions around in-person or remote work for employees would be based on the work they did and its impact on students.
Prof. Wendy Wolford, global development, vice provost for international affairs, acknowledged that the return to in person coursework may be a challenge for some international students who may not be able to access the vaccine in their home country in time.
Since faculty will not be required to provide online access to courses, study away will not be offered. International students unable to return due to restrictions on international travel will need to coordinate their own accommodations with their advisors on a case-by-case basis.
“Curricular accommodations, including something as extreme as maybe a leave of absence, are decided at the college level,” Wolford said. “Students really should be in close contact with their departments.”
Wolford also acknowledged that while some international students may have extenuating circumstances, othersare simply hesitant about returning over safety concerns.
“A tremendous amount of work has been done to make the campus a safe place,” Wolford said. “We hope that this conversation and conversations over the next several months, can address any source of hesitancy that you might feel about returning.”