Students packed into Cornell’s largest auditorium to learn about the basics of psychology and oceanography this semester have found themselves at the center of their own study — to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in classrooms.
Those enrolled in BIOEE 1540: Introductory Oceanography and PSYCH 1101: Introduction to Psychology — two of Cornell’s largest courses, each seating close to 1000 students inside Bailey Hall, have been participating in a data collection effort to track down any instances of COVID transmission in the large lecture hall since the week of Sept. 24.
The University has said that there is low risk of transmission in the classroom because of high student and faculty vaccination rate, regular surveillance testing, and mandatory masking. However, the purpose of the current data collection effort is to better understand where transmission is occurring on campus by tracking the exact seats students sit in during lecture.
At the beginning of every lecture, students are able to scan a QR code on the projected screen where they can enter their netID and seat number into a polling application on their phones, but they are not required to do so.
According to Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering, tracking students by seat for every single classroom is impracticable, but tracking students inside the over-1,000 seat Bailey Hall will allow for consistent data collection.
Prof. Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, who teaches Introductory Oceanography, noted the unique opportunity his class provides in observing potential in-lecture transmission.
“We can do this study to see whether or not COVID is being transmitted in a classroom by looking at kind of the worst-case scenario,” said Monger. “If you’re in Bailey, you’re really shoulder to shoulder.”
Prof. David Pizarro, psychology, who teaches Introductory Psychology, was initially wary of in-lecture transmission with a class enrollment of over 900, but actively tracking potential cases put him at ease.
“I was a little worried. Because look, we say mask up, but a lot of them aren’t wearing masks, and I can’t see whether they are or not,’” said Pizarro. “I was worried that we weren’t tracking in-class transmission.”
According to Pizarro, the University told him that there was no classroom transmission even though there wasn’t any study to track the seating assignments of students that could prove otherwise.
Rani Sheth ‘24, who is enrolled in Oceanography, said she now feels safer being inside Bailey although she was concerned at the beginning of the semester.
“I know for some people it is a concern being in such a large class that is so tightly packed and not everyone has a voice to express that because it is kind of obligatory to come in,” Sheth said.
According to Frazier, even though past analysis indicates that in-lecture transmission is very unlikely, Frazier said that they would expect some of the larger classes to have multiple cases since these classes draw more students from more socially active groups.
“Knowing whether students are sitting near each other helps us check whether classes with multiple cases were likely created through outside-of-lecture transmission, in which case positive students would often be sitting apart,” Frazier wrote in an email to the Sun.
Frazier also said that if there are two positive students seated next to each other, contract tracing can help determine whether or not transmission actually occurred during class while wearing masks.
“It is also possible that two positive students who do not interact outside of class were seated next to each other in class, thereby suggesting that transmission may have occurred in class when in fact the two cases are unrelated, and the students were coincidentally seated next to each other,” Frazier wrote.
According to Frazier, while data collection is still underway, the data collected so far has indicated a very low risk of transmission. Monger thinks that the University conducting this study shows a creative approach to evaluating COVID safety in the classroom.
“I would call it diligence,” said Monger. “They are going above and beyond and taking advantage that we have this large [sample size]…with numbered seats so we can do this cool reporting.”