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Vaccinated individuals may soon be exempt from surveillance testing, marking just one of several COVID-19 policy shifts planned for the new semester.

August 16, 2021

Vaccination, Testing, Masking: Here’s What You Need to Know for Fall 2021

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As Cornellians gear up for the first day of classes and settle back into Ithaca, the University has reiterated that vaccination, masking and surveillance testing will allow students to return for an in-person fall. Here’s the latest University guidance as Cornell readies for a new semester. 


All students were required to submit proof of vaccination — or submit a religious or medical exemption — by Aug. 16. Cornell is hosting a final vaccination clinic on Wednesday for unvaccinated students to get their shots following move-in.

While the University is mandating vaccination for students without an exemption, Cornell is only encouraging faculty and staff to get vaccinated. As of Monday, 12,025 faculty and staff have been fully vaccinated — 99 percent of professorial faculty and 91 percent of other staff approved to be on campus — according to the COVID tracking dashboard

According to an Aug. 11 email to faculty and staff, unvaccinated students without exemptions will face progressive enforcement measures. Currently, 99 percent of undergraduates and 98 percent of graduate students — or 25,759 students who are expected to enroll in the fall — are fully vaccinated, according to the dashboard.

Students who did not submit vaccination information, scheduled a vaccination appointment or filed for exemption by Aug. 16 faced a registration hold and restricted access to campus facilities starting Aug. 17. 

By Sept. 9, these students will be blocked from Canvas on Sept. 10 until they comply with vaccination or exemption, and by Sept. 25, they will be withdrawn from the University the following day until they comply with these measures (and must pay $350 to re-enroll).    

Even with 96 percent of the total on-campus population vaccinated, Cornell reported 34 new cases the week of Aug. 17 and five cases on Monday, according to the dashboard. As of Tuesday, there are 154 active cases in Tompkins County and three active hospitalizations.


Unvaccinated students will be tested twice per week — and vaccinated undergraduate students will get tested once a week, a decrease from prior requirements. In the spring, all undergraduates were tested twice a week, with select populations — including anyone who lived on North Campus, all Greek life members and student athletes — testing three times weekly. 

Vaccinated professional students in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the Law School, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the SC Johnson College of Business will get tested weekly. Graduate students who are vaccinated are strongly encouraged, but not required, to seek surveillance testing.

Testing sites are currently open at Bartels Hall, Robert Purcell Community Center, Willard Straight Hall, on West Campus at MaryAnn Wood Drive, East Hill Plaza and the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Cornell will require unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students to get twice weekly surveillance tests until they are fully vaccinated — or continually if they are exempt from vaccination. Unvaccinated students who skip their tests will be restricted from making course enrollment changes, as well as from accessing campus Wi-Fi and Canvas — continuing consequences from the spring semester. 

The University will also require weekly testing for some fully vaccinated faculty and staff, “based on the nature of their work interactions,” the Aug. 12 email read. Employees can also opt into weekly testing, and supplemental testing will also remain available to asymptomatic individuals. Unvaccinated faculty and staff must get twice weekly surveillance tests.

Cornell plans to pause surveillance testing for vaccinated individuals as soon as there’s a “low virus prevalence” on campus.

Masking and fall instruction

While biweekly nose swabs might soon be a relic for many students, indoor masking will stick around — at least for now. 

Following a July 30 Tompkins County Health Department advisory, all Cornell students, faculty, staff and visitors — regardless of vaccination status — must mask up indoors, including in classrooms.  

This guidance comes as Cornell has announced that the University will not offer remote instruction this fall. Packed lecture halls and seminar rooms will return without seat assignments, and instructors won’t be required to take attendance.  

“During such normal operations, in-person teaching is considered essential for all faculty members and instructional staff with teaching responsibilities,” Kotlikoff wrote in an Aug. 11 email to faculty. “Accordingly, the university will not approve requests, including those premised on the need for a disability accommodation, to substitute remote teaching for normal in-person instruction.”

The email continued that remote teaching “is not an allowable substitute for in-person instruction when our students are on campus,” but added that faculty can include aspects of virtual instruction they found successful during the previous academic year. 

Cornell is also discouraging faculty from allowing remote access to classes for individual students and asks that students who request remote instruction due to a disability register with Student Disability Services. 

For international students facing visa difficulties and travel limitations that prevent them from arriving on campus before classes start, the University asks students to contact the student services offices in their colleges to track their course progression or consider if they need to change their course schedule or fall semester plans altogether. 

And, if students are placed in isolation or quarantine — which is housed in Balch Hall this fall as The Statler Hotel welcomes visitors again — they can request a temporary accommodation through SDS, who will notify instructors about their attendance.    

“Keep in mind that remote access to class may not always be the best solution,” the email reads, “and that there are low-tech ways for students to keep up with class until they are able to be present in person, just as they would have prior to the pandemic.”

As Cornell calls to limit remote learning, Kotlikoff wrote to faculty, staff and graduate students on Aug. 13 after some expressed concerns about in-person operations at an Aug. 11 town hall — saying that Cornell remains committed to accommodating individual needs as the University returns in-person.

These accommodations include a medical leave for faculty and staff. Graduate teaching assistants in need of disability-based accommodations should contact SDS, Kotlikoff wrote. Individual academic units can choose to offer options, such as partial remote instruction, for faculty, staff or graduate students with “extraordinary circumstances” that prevent them from teaching in-person this fall.

Update, Aug. 25, 1:48 p.m.: This post has been updated.