Last semester, exactly a week after emailing the student body that the MBA program would be going online, President Pollack announced that the University was planning for a fully in-person semester on a fully vaccinated campus. After seeing two classes of close friends miss out on senior experiences so integral to being a student at Cornell, I started to dream of an O-Week with large parties blasting music, with strong drinks filling red solo cups, and with the carefree feeling captured so well by Doja Cat permeating Ithaca’s humid August air: we’re so young, boy we ain’t got nothing to lose.
Although those parties still happened in many places, the world where they were no longer a public health hazard is gone. Due to the Delta variant, transmission of COVID-19 nationwide is its highest level since late January, and Tompkins County has its highest caseload since the pandemic started. On Cornell’s campus, the last ten days have seen over 300 cases and raised the University’s weekly positivity rate over 1%, the largest outbreak campus has ever had.
There are obvious caveats to these numbers, namely that vaccination significantly reduces risk of serious illness, especially for a student-aged population. Therefore, this semester Cornell seems to be aiming to simply maintain the safety of immunocompromised people and those who can’t get vaccinated yet – including the children of staff and instructors initially obligated to teach in person – as opposed to trying to prevent any transmission on campus like last year.
Last semester, the university achieved some level of success thanks to a range of large-scale collective actions: online instruction, campus de-densification, frequent testing, university-provided isolation, vaccine drives and compliance with a behavioral compact. Despite hundreds of students testing positive over the year, by encouraging collective action the university was able to pull off a full academic year in Ithaca that I thought wouldn’t last more than three weeks.
This semester, those systems of support and collective safety have been shredded. Despite higher levels of a more transmissible variant, online instruction and recording were not initially options for professors; campus spaces such as dining halls and cafes are open at full capacity; testing is much less frequent; classrooms are at full capacity and quarantined students are facing an academic isolation safety net that is both uneven and full of holes. Graduate student instructors – often overlooked in discussions about the function of campus – face the unique plight of being unable to access the same HR processes as faculty and often don’t even get communications because there’s no comprehensive email list of graduate student instructors. These shortcomings don’t even begin to cover the emotional toll, especially high for immunocompromised community members and those with children not yet eligible for vaccination, of not knowing whether the person coughing in lecture or discussion is unwittingly positive.
And yet, in the face of rising case rates, the university’s response has not been to rebuild the systems of safety and support that made the last year so effective. In fact, President Pollack even suggested that testing frequency could decrease if cases fall, as if not testing as frequently as last semester isn’t a huge factor in the more than 300 new positives in this past week. In essence, the University has returned to the pre-pandemic status quo of getting sick on campus that effectively serves as a slogan for most of U.S. public policy: let individuals shoulder the burdens of our structural shortcomings and hope that enough of them stay standing that the structures themselves don’t collapse.
This is not a call for endless restrictions on social life or acts of pandemic theater. I actually agree that any outdoor mask mandate is prioritizing the wrong thing given the miniscule risk for outdoor transmission compared to eating in a packed dining hall. Similarly, I acknowledge that most if not all of us are likely to get COVID-19 in our lifetime, experiencing it as a non-life-threatening illness somewhere between a cold we don’t notice and a bad case of the flu.
And yet, using this likelihood to simply concede that COVID-19 will run rampant through the student body is a dereliction of basic human empathy and shows a discouraging disbelief in our capacity for collective action. The Cornell community should be able to re-open without putting immunocompromised and unvaccinated populations at risk. If the University is going to ask students to do their part in slowing the spread by wearing masks and spending as much time as possible outside, it could at least do its part and provide more spaces to do that comfortably. More tables and chairs could be placed in public spaces like the Arts and Ag Quads, the area outside Bailey Hall and the terrace over Olin Library. If feeling ambitious, the University could acknowledge that partying will occur and encourage people to do so outdoors, or administrators could work with IPD to close parts of Eddy Street so that Hideaway and Level B patrons can drink outdoors instead of in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
Most obviously, the administration could reinstitute last academic year’s testing regime with several benefits. For the community at large it can help slow transmission, which we desperately need given the tales of those currently in isolation. For instructors and the immunocompromised, frequent testing can provide more peace of mind about everyone around them in lecture. More frequent testing could also be a boon to the public health community. By providing detailed, regular data from a highly vaccinated population, in a similar way to how those involved in Provincetown’s outbreak earlier this summer helped the CDC. Reducing testing is a choice that was made by the University, and it is one to keep us less safe and less informed.
Most importantly, the university can acknowledge that a return to a pre-COVID status quo where significant portions of the student body stumbled around campus coughing isn’t possible, much less inevitable. We deserve better problems than whether a prolonged cold or flu will put a student’s entire semester’s worth of classes at risk, or whether that same virus will put an immunocompromised instructor in distress because there’s no ability to imagine a system that protects them. After over a year of COVID-19, we know that the University has the capacity to create a safer, more supportive campus environment – and that not doing so is a choice.
So, for the University administrators probably not reading this, I have just one question: Can you test me more?
Giancarlo is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Boy (Not) From Ipanema runs every other Wednesday this semester.