After two semesters full of mask wearing, surveillance testing and Zoom classes, Cornell administrators said the vast majority of Cornell students cooperated with public health guidelines — calling this cooperation essential to a successful year.
The Sun sat down with Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and wellbeing, Gary Koretzky ’78, vice provost for academic integration, Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, and Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, to reflect on Cornell’s COVID mitigation efforts over the past year.
Lombardi praised how students handled the spring semester — filled with challenges students faced due to the personal toll of COVID-19 and as they navigated college life during a pandemic.
“I think students have done magnificently well,” Lombardi said. “These were incredibly difficult circumstances and really challenging for everybody to navigate based on their own personal impact of COVID and just trying to be on campus during this time.”
While Lombardi acknowledged that some students have felt they needed more time off throughout the academic year, he said administrators tried to continue to hear from students as they adapted, while also keeping in mind the needs of faculty.
According to McMullen and Koretzky, as the number of COVID cases and general risk levels fell, the administration worked to balance student academic and social wellbeing. If cases rose again, they readjusted, working to find a middle ground throughout the academic year.
Lombardi said the open reporting system received about 17,000 behavioral compact complaints over the course of the year, which were sifted through by the Cornell Compact Compliance Team, outside of the Office of the Judicial Administrator. The team was led through the care and crisis team, part of the dean of students office, and staff from across the University volunteered to help.
According to Lombardi, most students followed the rules: Only 1,200 complaints were ultimately referred to the judicial administrator’s office, often if the rule violation was either repeated or more severe. Most of these complaints simply resulted in educational conversations about the importance of public health guidelines.
While Koretzky said dealing with behavioral compact violations was an important part of the COVID-19 mitigation process, he said he was impressed with the scale of student compliance with surveillance testing, mask wearing and other public health measures.
“The percentage of students who did their tests on time routinely was between 96 and 98 percent,” Koretzy said. “There are thousands of you, and you did it.”
According to Koretzky, while the administration understood early on that surveillance testing would be a cornerstone of Cornell’s COVID response, the University wanted to avoid burdening county health resources.
“[Surveillance] testing was new at the time. We could have asked Cayuga to help us test, but we decided that we needed to be part of the solution, rather than asking for the help of others. We were great partners,” Koretzky said. “The lab was so successful that we tested a lot for the region.”
According to Koretzky, the administration made data-driven decisions when they adjusted COVID policies — including changing the frequency of testing for some groups, as well as broadening the scope of testing for the contacts of people who had tested positive.
“When the data indicated that incidence was falling, we then changed our restrictions and opened up activity, balancing students’ physical health and their mental health and well being,” McMullen said.
As administrators continue to develop plans for the fall, Koretzky said finding this balance remains ongoing.
“Going forward, we’re still in that struggle. Things are going to become much, much more normal,” Koretzky said. “The question will be the pace, we’ve got to balance that with safety.”