Cornell will begin the spring semester online and extend the move-in period with an expanded testing scheme, as it expects large numbers of cases during the first few weeks of the term, the University announced Thursday.
The University will begin the semester on Jan. 24 as planned — but with two weeks of virtual instruction until Feb. 4 to accommodate students in isolation, President Martha Pollack, Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi wrote in a Thursday afternoon email.
“Our modeling suggests that Cornell could see a large number of cases during the first few weeks, although given our almost entirely vaccinated and largely boosted population, the vast majority of these cases will be mild or asymptomatic,” the email read. “This expected, early-semester spike poses several challenges for universities, given the need to provide sufficient isolation space and living support for students in isolation, as well as to prevent students from falling behind in classes.”
Beyond virtual instruction, Cornell is implementing pre-departure testing and enhancing arrival testing. The University will also begin the semester at alert level yellow, indicating moderate risk. (Cornell has started the past three semesters at the green alert.)
This move comes as other universities across the country — including Columbia University, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, among the Ivy League — have announced plans to move the first two weeks of the spring semester online, as they respond to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
During the week of Dec. 30, Cornell is reporting 289 positive cases, weeks before most students are set to return to Ithaca. On Jan. 6, Tompkins County reported 1,404 active cases with 15 active hospitalizations.
Active cases in the county peaked at 2,630 on Dec. 22, before dipping for a couple days and then starting to increase again in the new year. This spike was more than five times higher than the previous record of 488 active cases on Sept. 5, and came as cases on campus skyrocketed at the end of the semester, sending the University into red alert level.
As Cornell looks to minimize health risks from the Omicron variant, here’s a breakdown of the University’s updated COVID policies with less than three weeks before the start of the semester.
The online start to the semester will allow students to return to campus anywhere between Jan. 18 and Feb. 7 — a move intended to accommodate new pre-arrival testing rules, changing travel plans and increased need for isolation space, without disrupting classes as much as possible.
All students who tested positive for COVID in December and during break must self report their positive case on the Daily Check website — exempting them from testing for 90 days.
Students living both on and off campus who have not tested positive within the last 90 days must get a negative test result 24 hours before returning to Ithaca and upload their test results to Daily Check.
According to the email, undergraduates who can’t secure a COVID test before they return to Ithaca should contact the University by Jan. 11 and Cornell will mail them an antigen test.
This is the first semester since fall 2020 that Cornell has mandated that students share pre-departure testing results with the University, and represents one of the biggest changes to arrival procedures from the prior three semesters.
All students should update the Spring Checklist with their travel plans, including their intended arrival date.
When students arrive in Ithaca, those living in on-campus housing will pick up an antigen test on campus and must upload their results to Daily Check within 24 hours of their arrival.
After this first arrival test, students living on campus will receive four additional antigen tests for twice weekly testing over the next two weeks and will upload their results.
“If you have a roommate, you should consider coordinating the dates of return, so that you do not both arrive at the same time,” the email reads. “That way, if the first to arrive tests positive despite pre-departure testing, that person will be able to isolate in the residence hall.”
Undergraduate, graduate and professional students living in off-campus housing will receive a link to schedule their arrival test at a Cornell PCR testing site closer to their arrival date — indicated in the Spring Checklist. After off-campus students complete the arrival testing, they must schedule twice weekly tests for two weeks at Cornell PCR testing sites.
All students who test positive before they return to Ithaca should isolate and delay traveling to campus until they complete the CDC recommended five-day isolation period.
Those who test positive on an arrival test will isolate in place if they live off campus, including in cooperative housing, fraternities and sororities.
Students who test positive and live in residence halls will isolate in their rooms if they live in a single — or if their roommates have not yet arrived or also tested positive. The University will provide hotel rooms “to the extent possible,” the email read, to students in on-campus housing who need isolation space.
Cornell is substantially limiting in-person student activities until in-person classes start on Feb. 7. The University also asks students to avoid informal social gatherings to minimize the spread of the virus during the beginning of the semester.
“Please help us keep Cornell safe and healthy by restricting social activity during these crucial two weeks,” the email read.
Dining halls will be open with grab-and-go meals during these first two weeks, and campus recreational facilities and libraries will remain open. Athletic events will continue as scheduled.
The University is doing away with cloth masks for the spring semester — under the latest COVID guidelines, these masks “no longer meet Cornell standards for protection,” administrators wrote.
All faculty, staff and students must wear high-quality masks, such as N95 and KN95 masks, recommended as the most effective against the Omicron variant. The University plans to distribute these masks to campus community members who need them.
Boosters and vaccination
Cornell mandated in December that all eligible students, faculty and staff get the booster shot (and upload their results to Daily Check) in addition to the COVID vaccine. Administrators wrote that Cornellians should get a booster before they return to campus, with limited supplies in Tompkins County.