As Cornell students now navigate both in-person and online final exams, cases have skyrocketed to a record-high 469 active student cases on campus — the highest number of positives on the Ithaca campus since the start of the pandemic.
These 469 cases are as of Sunday data, updated on Monday around 5 p.m. Through the weekend, even as the University moved to yellow alert on Friday and announced nearly 300 new cases — including the introduction of the Omicron variant — on Saturday, the COVID dashboard data had yet to be updated.
This new data reveals just how stark the spike is: Against the current 469 active cases, the entire spring 2021 semester saw just 456 cases total.
Similarly, in the first three months of the fall 2021 semester — Sept. 6 to Dec. 4 — Cornell reported 465 cases total. But since Dec. 4, the University has reported 678, with 411 of those cases being in just two days.
“All in-person student gatherings, formal or informal, are cancelled,” Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi wrote on Saturday when updating campus about the latest spike. “This applies to undergraduate, graduate and professional students, and includes events with members of the local community.”
But alongside the case spikes and the event cancellations, the University announced Saturday that in-person exams will continue as planned — with exams already running at 50 percent capacity. Cornell also urged students on Saturday to leave campus as soon as they take their last in-person final.
Still, some instructors moved their exams online, just days before the exams were scheduled — including Cornell’s largest course, Introductory Oceanography, which boasts more than 1,000 students.
“Clearly, a final exam in Barton Hall with 800 students and Statler Auditorium with 200 students are large indoor gatherings to be avoided,” Prof. Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, wrote to students on Saturday. “My job is to teach, but I am also supposed to help keep everyone safe. I feel very strongly that moving the exam to an online version is the right thing to do at this time.”
As of Saturday, Cornell’s COVID-19 website advises students who have been named as close contacts of someone who tested positive, have taken a supplemental test and are asymptomatic to attend their final exam the same day — even if they have yet to receive their test results.
But contact tracing for the county is proving more challenging than usual: On Sunday, the Tompkins County Health Department wrote that they are “experiencing delays in case investigation calls for some positive cases,” and are prioritizing people who are over 65 years old and children in K-12 settings.
“TCHD is reporting that recent cases have been resulting from significant community spread — over 50 percent of cases are not able to trace where they may have been infected, showing significant spread in the community and in settings where masking and distancing are not observed,” Frank Kruppa, the county public health director, wrote in a release.
The spike on campus follows local trends, as Tompkins County has the most active cases since the start of the pandemic. On Dec. 12 there were 772 active cases in the county, and on Dec. 13 there were 748.
With an increasing number of students in isolation, Kotlikoff and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa Nishii wrote to faculty Saturday, asking instructors to be flexible with students as cases rise on campus — as well as to communicate with students and their college registrar if they move final exams online.
“You may also hear from students trying to heed guidance to quickly leave campus,” their Saturday message reads. “These students may benefit from modest extensions. If you are able and inclined, please know that the absolute final deadline for submitting fall semester grades is 8 a.m. on January 6. After that date, students would need to be given an incomplete (“INC”) until they are able to complete their work.”
The COVID website also tells students who don’t feel well and have tested positive to contact their instructors, who receive Student Disability Services accommodation notices, to discuss their options for the course.
The last time the University raised its COVID alert level was at the beginning of the fall semester, when the campus saw record numbers of cases as students returned to Ithaca.
In the week leading up to the raising of the alert level back in August, the University reported 101 cases. In the seven days leading up to the most recent announcement that campus would raise its alert level on Dec. 10, Cornell reported 188 cases.
It is currently unclear how the University decides to raise its alarm, with the COVID-19 dashboard stating that “the University, in partnership with the Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Health System, continues to monitor a variety of indicators to determine what actions may need to be taken should conditions change.”
As of Saturday, the December Recognition Ceremony, slated for this weekend, is still set to happen in person.