Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Photography Editor

Students sit outside of Willard Straight on the first day of classes on Thursday. By Friday, the University moved to alert level yellow.

August 27, 2021

Cornell Moves to Yellow Alert Two Days Into Classes

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After just two days of fully in-person classes, Cornell moved to alert level yellow Friday afternoon as cases increase among students. 

Cornell is reporting 41 cases as of the last COVID-19 tracking dashboard update, with 11 new cases reported on Wednesday, the day before classes started. There are currently 207 active cases in Tompkins County, with 40 new cases reported Friday. 

The University predicts more cases to follow as direct and likely contacts continue to be tested — although positive cases currently make up less than 1 percent of the campus population. 

The yellow alert level means indicators show rates of infection are increasing and that the virus prevalence has increased “above baseline modeling,” according to a Friday email to the Cornell community. 

Infections are overwhelmingly linked to informal social events and activities, unsponsored by the University, Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi and Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Opperman wrote in a second Friday email.

“Informal social gatherings — both on or off campus — of more than a small number of attendees should be postponed until our case count moderates,” they advised. 

Administrators said the University did not have any virus transmission in classrooms during the previous academic year — but added that if numbers don’t fall, Cornell “may consider moving to virtual instruction for a period of time.” It is yet unclear what transitions online will look like, as the University has previously held that the semester will remain in person. 

Classroom and lab capacity may be reduced or seating may be reconfigured under the yellow alert. The capacity of some campus facilities may also be reduced to allow for physical distancing, and Cornell-sponsored events may be limited, canceled or moved online. 

“While the number of cases is concerning, we want to emphasize that our system is working,” the second email read. “Virtually all of our students are fully vaccinated; as such, it is the case that those who are infected will almost all be vaccinated.” 

As of Wednesday, 95 percent of the on-campus population is vaccinated.

All faculty, staff and students must mask up both indoors and outdoors, regardless of vaccination status — a change from previous guidance with masks only required indoors. 

Kotlikoff, Lombardi and Opperman also encouraged students living in off-campus communal housing — such as Greek life — to similarly mask indoors, but wrote that exemptions will remain in place for athletics teams during practice and competition.

Under the yellow alert, Cornell may also increase surveillance testing for vaccinated students, faculty and staff — with updates for individuals found on Daily Check pages. 

Currently, all fully vaccinated undergraduate students and some professional students test once a week, with unvaccinated populations testing twice weekly. Other populations — like some faculty, staff and graduate students — can opt into testing.

As cases increase, quarantine capacity is at 88 percent, with students isolating in Balch Hall, a change from the spring, when students quarantined in The Statler Hotel. According to Kotlikoff, Lombardi and Opperman, the vast majority of identified cases are asymptomatic or experiencing only mild symptoms — following the national trend that the vaccine is proving effective in preventing severe illness. 

“We want to emphasize: this uptick in cases has enabled us to assess our current practices and to make prudent adjustments. And while we can expect more positives to be identified over the coming days, our community has demonstrated a remarkable ability over the last two semesters to course-correct,” the email continued. “With your cooperation, we expect to do so again.”

Update, Aug. 27, 4:48 p.m.: This story has been updated to include a second email from the Cornell administration.