Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Balch Hall is currently being used as COVID-19 quarantine housing.

September 6, 2021

As Cornell Reports Record Cases, Students Miss First Classes, Bear Burdens of COVID Policies

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In February 2021, Jamie ’24 was forced to quarantine hours after stepping foot on Cornell’s campus after someone on her bus from New York City tested positive for COVID-19. She never tested positive herself — but she spent seven days in quarantine at The Statler Hotel. 

But on Aug. 26, after Jamie, who asked to omit her last name because of mention of personal medical history, learned the boss of her summer job tested positive, the sophomore spent two days trying to get a COVID test at Cornell before learning that she, too, had COVID-19.

“[The health department] basically said since you’re vaccinated, it’s not urgent,” Jamie said. “Between the time that I found out I was contact traced, and when I actually got my positive result back on Saturday night, I had no restrictions. I could have gone anywhere.”

Jamie is one of nearly 400 Cornell students who tested positive for COVID from Aug. 26 to Sept. 5. They’ve scrambled to get tested and find isolation arrangements during the first weeks of classes — isolating in Balch Hall, hotels or at home.

She and hundreds of other students are now keeping up with coursework with few live classes to attend. Some students will meet their professors for the first time three weeks into the school year, as faculty aren’t required to provide remote course access to those in isolation. 

Most Cornell cases are linked to “informal, off-campus gatherings” among undergraduates, and the University has asked students to put off parties and wear masks as much as possible. Case levels are reaching record highs in Tompkins County — as of Monday evening, there are 442 active cases in the county.

With nearly all students vaccinated, the University suspended arrival testing and reduced surveillance testing to weekly nose swabs for vaccinated students. But now, some students are reporting long waits to get supplemental tests and test results, and some have been forced to navigate campus with the suspicion that they are positive for COVID-19. 

After Jamie learned she might have been exposed, she spent two days attending classes and gathering with her friends. She minimized her time spent indoors and wore a mask indoors and outdoors — but without specific University guidance, she was forced to calculate her own decisions while she awaited her test results. (According to the University, fully vaccinated individuals do not need to quarantine after contact with someone who tests positive unless they have symptoms.)

“It was pretty scary, because I knew that I had been in contact with a lot of people,” Jamie said. “At a certain point, I knew I should limit my indoor use, like the mask on outside when possible, but I’d already been in close contact with like 30 people.”

While Jamie said she tried to keep her distance, even avoiding crowded dining halls, she attended Trevor Wallace’s performance in Bailey Hall directly before she received a call that she had tested positive. While Jamie wasn’t breaking University policy when attending class and the event, she feared facing repercussions now that she has tested positive.

“I’m relying on the school to not only keep me from getting COVID, but also keep me from giving it to other people,” Jamie said. “It feels like neither of that is happening.”  

Ekaterina Shetekauri ’24 said that finding out she had COVID was “pretty overwhelming,” but said the process of being isolated in Balch Hall was relatively seamless. A van picked her up from West Campus and dropped her off to a room furnished with a fan, various electronics chargers, bedding and three meals a day. 

Justine ’24, another student in isolation at Cayuga Blu Hotel by the Shops at Ithaca Mall who also asked to omit her last name because of mention of personal medical history, waited nearly two days after her test to be isolated. After being tested on Aug. 26, she woke up to a text from the New York State Health Department notifying her she had tested positive on Saturday. 

But Justine said she didn’t get a call from Cornell until the early afternoon, and was transported to the hotel around 5 p.m. Without guidance, she and her roommate — who also tested positive — isolated in their room and did not eat until getting to the hotel in fear of infecting other students in a dining hall. 

As Justine and her roommate retraced their steps to tell those they had been in close contact with, she said it was difficult to know when they contracted COVID because of the lack of arrival testing. 

“It was also stressful, because I went through the first two days of classes with COVID unknowingly,” Justine said. “On Friday, I ate my meals with people I just met.” 

As Cornell’s isolation capacity fills — as of Monday, only 19 percent of quarantine and isolation space is available, according to the COVID dashboard — the University is giving students living off campus the option to isolate at home, as long as they have access to their own bedroom and bathroom.  

Emma Grabowski ’23 — who lives in an off-campus house — said her roommates who tested negative are delivering meals to her door to stay isolated from her. Grabowski rushed to urgent care last Saturday when she learned she might have been exposed to the virus, unable to find available supplemental tests at Cornell. 

Two days after testing positive, she called Cornell Health herself to report her positive test result, when Cornell Health offered her isolation space in Balch Hall. She opted to stay home until her isolation period ends Sept. 8.  

“I chose to stay because by that point I was frustrated by Cornell Health and didn’t trust them,” Grabowski wrote to The Sun. “I had access to my own bathroom and room and by that point, I was already isolating in my house for a few days.”

This reality worried Clara Enders ’22, who lives in a University-owned co-op. When one of her fellow residents tested positive last week, Enders said Cornell Health asked the resident to isolate in the house alongside more than 20 students. The co-op ultimately decided to have the resident isolate outside of their home.     

“Last semester and fall 2020, if we had a positive, that person would have been yanked out of the house,” Enders said. “We only have so many bathrooms and we share them all. Plus our house is so old, no AC, no real ventilation. In a house that has over 20 people living in it, to have one positive person stay was too great a risk to take.”

Enders said she received no information from Cornell Health after the resident tested positive — creating public health guidance fell on Enders and her housemates. Living with shared kitchens and bathrooms, the co-op residents decided to mask up in common spaces and get supplemental tests until cases ebb. In spring 2021, students living in group housing got tested three times a week — that requirement is now weekly.     

“I had to call Cornell Health myself and say, ‘I live in this house and someone tested positive, what should we do?’” Enders said. “If there’s no alternative in terms of online classes, then your home life is really the only place where you can manage your own level of risk.” 

“We were given literally zero guidance by Cornell,” she continued. “I have no idea why this house full of 20-year-olds has to make public health decisions.” 

But other students living off campus are isolating at home, sharing bathrooms with their COVID-positive roommates. John Ninia ’22 said he and three of his other six roommates have tested positive — more than half of his house is in quarantine. Now, one of his roommates who tested negative is staying in a hotel off campus, and another is spending as much time in his room as possible, according to Ninia.    

Ninia said he decided to self-quarantine after he lost his sense of taste and smell — emailing his professors about his absence even before he received a positive test result. But with no universal remote class option, Ninia said he worried other Cornell students might not follow suit if they feel sick.  

“It just incentivizes people to keep going to class if they might feel a little sick,” Ninia said. “We’re at a competitive school. Everyone wants to get ahead, and nobody wants to fall behind. Classes are the biggest concern. I’m gonna be going to my first day of classes on the second or third week of it.”

Ninia said Cornell sent out a Student Disability Services letter to his professors after he tested positive, writing that he wouldn’t be penalized for missing class. But Ninia and other students in isolation said they worried they’re falling behind on their coursework while Cornell doesn’t require professors to offer remote classes. 

Only some of Ninia’s classes are being recorded, and he said doing school remotely mostly means following along on Canvas. Grabowski said attending class now largely consists of reading textbooks and reviewing lecture slides from her bedroom. 

So far, she said only one of her professors is offering Zoom lectures. Under current University policy, it is up to faculty to figure out how to support students in isolation or quarantine — from uploading lectures from previous semesters to asking students to compile class notes.  

“I feel behind. I’m pretty stressed,” Grabowski said. “I just feel like I’m going to feel so out of place next week.”

While most Cornell students have found themselves back to a packed campus, hopping from 1,000-person oceanography lectures to snaking Trillium lines, the worlds of isolated Cornellians have once again narrowed to their bedrooms — or to a vacant dorm or hotel room. 

Grabowski has spent her days putting up pictures on her walls in between coursework to keep herself busy — and to keep her frustrations at bay.   

 “It just seems like the administration is being negligent,” Grabowski said. “It annoys me because they keep on this front that everything’s fine. They’re doing outdoor mask mandates, but they’re not doing what they could for the people who are in quarantine and isolation.” 

Sara Javkhlan ’24 contributed reporting.