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Professors with exams scheduled, including Prof. Anne Bracy, computer science, rescheduled exams that were slated for Tuesday.

November 14, 2021

From Canceled Classes to Restructured Curricula: Cornell Faculty Respond to Week’s Emergency Alerts

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Wen Duan grad was driving to campus to teach her Tuesday class — COMM 1101: Introduction to Communication — when an emergency alert rang loudly on her phone. “Person with gun in Cayuga Heights. North Campus shelter in place. Lock doors/windows,” it read. 

Grabbing her phone, she immediately canceled class and extended deadlines for her students before driving home and watching more alerts roll in. 

Duan was one of many instructors across campus that scrambled Tuesday afternoon to modify coursework and exams following campus shelter-in-place orders prompted by sightings of a person with a gun in the local community — which came just two days after threats of a bomb on Central Campus shook many students. In the following week, many juggled the needs of students with tight course plans. 

According to some faculty, including Prof. Shorna Allred, natural resources, house professor-dean of Alice Cook House, rumors on social media increased panic among students and made responding to threats more difficult.

“In these fast developing situations, you can’t always share information as quickly as you would like,” Allred said. “But I think once people know what was happening, it helps them to be able to process and deal with the situation at hand.”

Though noting that it can be difficult for Cornell to provide direct instruction immediately, Duan raised concern about the University’s communication — or lack thereof — with professors and students following the alerts. 

“To be honest, I found the emails from the University to be not super informative,” Duan said. “ I don’t think that anything they have sent out was helpful at all.” 

In the midst of the shelter-in-place order on Tuesday, there was uncertainty as to which parts of campus were included. Prof. Daniel Szpiro, accounting, was teaching when the Cornell alert was released with just 15 minutes remaining in class. Szpiro decided to let students leave, but advised them to stay away from North Campus. 

“The instructions were talking about North Campus and we were in Phillips Hall,” Szpiro said. “Looking around, there were lots of people still walking around and trying to to move to different places, [so] it seemed appropriate to let people out of the Phillips Hall classroom.”

Reacting to the alerts was further complicated as some faculty were concerned for the well-being of children enrolled in local schools that were also placed on lockdown

“Faculty lives were impacted, and then we as faculty were also concerned for our students’ lives,” said Dean of Faculty Prof. Eve De Rosa, psychology. “They were locking down the high school, the middle school, the elementary school and so all of our children were impacted.”

Professors with exams slated for Tuesday, including Prof. Anne Bracy, computer science, were forced to reschedule and re-evaluate the structure of their course. Bracy was concerned about the physical and emotional safety of her students and course staff, and told her students that she would reschedule their Tuesday evening exam.

Many faculty, including Prof. Nikole Lewis, astronomy, saw a range of reactions to the week’s events from students, from those who felt relatively unaffected to others who seemed quite distressed.

“In lecture, I did a ‘how are you feeling’ exercise where you put the little dots on and people were still all over the map.” Lewis said. “I think people have experienced it very differently, and that’s something that we have to respect.”

Instructors, too, grappled with their own emotions while restructuring curriculums and communicating with students. 

“I thought a small town like Ithaca is the safest place in the U.S.,” Duan said. “Yet, at this frequency of these things happening this past week, I’m not holding on to that belief.” 

Many faculty worked to change their course schedules to allow students time to process the week’s events. These accommodations varied from course to course, as faculty balanced content they had planned to teach with student needs.

For some faculty, including Szpiro and Lewis, accommodations included delaying deadlines for assignments to avoid creating a pile-up of work. Faculty who teach courses which are prerequisites for other courses, including Bracy and Prof. Stephen Lee, chemistry, who teaches Chemistry 2070: General Chemistry I, the logistics of adjusting a course schedule were particularly challenging.

“The chemistry that you learn in CHEM 2070 is a very continuous story.” Lee said. “It really is very difficult to try to be as understanding as you can be, and at the same time work in a very, very tight schedule.”

Both Lee and Bracy made course adjustments based on content they did not consider immediately necessary or as important for preparation for future courses. After consulting with his undergraduate teaching assistants, Lee decided to make post-lecture assignments for the following week optional because that material won’t be tested on until after Thanksgiving Break. 

While Bracy kept project deadlines constant, to avoid giving students work over Thanksgiving break, she cancelled her lecture and lab section last week while making the online quiz optional. During Wednesday’s lecture, she set up karaoke instead of holding a lecture. Despite the logistical challenges, Bracy and other professors who spoke to The Sun thought it was necessary to be accommodating.

“I knew I had to cancel something, it was too much. Students were very stressed, they were exhausted,” Bracy said. “I can’t hold them to the same level of academic work that I give to students under semesters in which crazy things like this don’t happen.”

Faculty received both general guidance from the University to be aware of the effect of the week’s event on students as well as advice from their specific colleges with suggestions of different strategies for helping students. Some found this helpful because it confirmed that being accommodating would not be seen as being less rigorous.

“One of the things that I found helpful was it was a reminder that the University does feel like making these accommodations is not somehow losing rigor in our coursework or somehow a detriment,” Lewis said.