September 29, 2021

SAMILOW | What Does Green Even Mean?

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I hoped I would be done writing about the coronavirus this semester. Twice was plenty. Yet, I find myself unable to turn away from the University’s actions on this issue — the irrationality, evasiveness and complete lack of transparency.

On Friday, Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced that the University would be returning to “Alert Level Green,” reflecting “improved surveillance testing results and the relatively low number of current cases of COVID-19.” Notwithstanding the improving situation, all current restrictions are being maintained with no criteria for when, or even if, they will eventually be lifted. This should concern all students. The University is going back on its word to lift virus restrictions as the situation allows and instead seems prepared to maintain an indefinite Covid-surveillance apparatus. 

It’s worth noting the way in which the Administration’s most recent message conflicts with its statements over the summer. In Provost Kotlikoff’s August 12 announcement, the University vowed to discontinue surveillance testing “for vaccinated individuals as soon as we are confident of low virus prevalence on campus.” Is returning to level green not an indication of low virus prevalence on campus? The Administration doesn’t explain what would ever give them confidence that virus levels are low and remaining low. We are just supposed to trust that they will stop testing eventually. 

We were also told that the University “hopes the indoor masking measure will be temporary,” but once again, the Administration plans to continue to require masks with no explanation of when it will ever decide not to do so. Perhaps, Cornell will simply follow the Tompkins County Health Department’s guidance. But why exactly should Cornell be following a guidance intended for a county population that is very different from the on-campus population. (Even with the TCHD guidance, very few places in Ithaca other than Cornell require masks.) Shouldn’t Cornell’s vaunted experts be able to make recommendations specifically for the campus? 

But even if Cornell is not ready to lift any restrictions, it owes its students an explanation of how it’s making these decisions and what criteria it’s looking at. But instead of laying out specific markers for ending restrictions, the University seems to prefer an opaque decision making process that allows it to continually move the goalposts.

The cycle goes like this: The Administration doesn’t require arrival testing, despite knowing that upon returning to Ithaca students will be socializing heavily. Cases then spike, leading the University to shift to “Alert Level Yellow” and implement new restrictions. Cases then subside as classes start and people stop arriving. The University claims that it was the new restrictions that caused the decline in cases. When the University then finally moves to “Alert Level Green”, it is no longer an indication that restrictions can be relaxed; instead, it becomes the impetus for maintaining them indefinitely.

More important, though, than Cornell’s specific restrictions or decision-making process is what it and other universities’ actions can tell us about the future. The vast majority of private (and many public) colleges have required students to get vaccinated and the schools with such mandates typically have vaccination rates over 95 percent (99 percent of Cornell undergraduates are vaccinated). Yet, with few exceptions, most of these institutions have maintained burdensome restrictions on their students. Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, recently shut down its indoor basketball courts because some students weren’t wearing masks while playing. Columbia University, as of September 17, has banned students from hosting guests, visiting residence halls other than their own and holding gatherings larger than 10 students. Georgetown’s Law School has forbidden students from removing their masks to take a sip of water during classes.

If at this juncture, fully vaccinated populations cannot do these basic things, what does that say for the path back to a normal existence? If college administrators are going to use a few mild or asymptomatic cases in 20-years olds to justify indefinite Covid surveillance, it is difficult to see how we ever step down from the “emergency” posture we’ve been in for the last 18 months.

Our nation’s academic institutions are tremendously influential. Trends that originate in academia have a way of spreading to other political, cultural and commercial institutions. We should see what’s going on at our nation’s colleges as more than an issue of students being vexed by mask mandates or testing, but as a warning of what the future might look like. 

Matthew Samilow is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. On Malott’s Front Steps runs every other Monday this semester.