Michael Wenye Li/Sun File Photo

President Martha Pollack's latest email considered campus closures.

September 3, 2021

Pollack: Campus Shutdown Is A Possibility If Cases Keep Rising

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As the more than 300 cases on campus approach the total number of positive cases recorded at Cornell in all of 2020, President Martha Pollack emailed the Cornell community Thursday, outlining possible courses for the fall semester. 

If cases fall enough, campus could return to green, the email read. But if positive COVID cases rise to a point that Cornell can’t maintain safe campus operations and support isolation, additional restrictions range from moving courses online to shutting down campus.

In her Thursday message, Pollack emphasized the importance of making evidence-based decisions and changing policies as needed, while being kind and working to protect the entire Cornell community. 

Pollack acknowledged that while Cornell’s 95 percent campus vaccination rate offers protection against serious illness, the delta variant is more transmissible and many on campus still remain at an elevated risk of infection.

“We know that no vaccines are perfect, we are challenged with a far more transmissible variant, and our community includes those who are immunocompromised, those who live with household members at risk, and those with children under 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated,” Pollack wrote. “Many of us are anxious about our own well-being, or the well-being of those we love.”

With COVID cases spiking this week, Pollack listed three possible outcomes for the semester. If cases fall and the University reaches green status, Cornell could loosen gathering restrictions and reduce the frequency of testing. To reach this goal, Pollack advised vaccination, masking, engaging in outdoor activities, regular testing and contact tracing.

But if infection rates remain high — with little transmission in classrooms or structured campus activities and with minimal serious illness — the semester may continue as it is currently. Pollack acknowledged that this scenario would be challenging, due to the large number of students who would regularly be in isolation.

Finally, if infections rise to the point that Cornell can’t support isolation or there is significant transmission in classrooms and in other official campus settings, the University would implement additional restrictions — including having students quarantine in place, moving all classes online or shutting down campus similarly to March 2020.

While Pollack described the campus testing program as aggressive, which allows any asymptomatic, non-exposed students, staff and faculty to schedule an surveillance test, some aspects of the testing program are less rigorous than the spring 2021 semester. Unlike last semester, arrival testing was not required for vaccinated students, and most vaccinated undergraduates only must complete weekly surveillance testing.

According to Pollack, students and many faculty called for a return to in-person instruction this fall. As 304 students are currently positive for COVID as of Thursday, Pollack encouraged the use of Zoom rooms, recorded lectures and crowdsourcing notes to support students who are in quarantine or isolation.

“This semester is, for all of us, yet another stage of ‘new normal’: one in which we maintain our commitment to respect knowledge and each other, while dedicating ourselves to meeting new challenges as they arise,” Pollack wrote.

Unlike earlier University communications that described in-person teaching as an essential part of faculty work — which led to faculty advocacy that called for more flexibility —  Pollack committed to finding accommodations for those with medical concerns or disabilities, which include online learning. 

While changes in vaccine efficacy, emergence of new variants and the approval of vaccines for children under 12 could change the year ahead, Pollack urged the Cornell  community to find new ways forward in the current reality.

“Many experts now believe that the coronavirus will become endemic, and we will need to adjust to and live with its risks, just as we live with many other risks in our lives,” Pollack wrote.