Cornell students returned to campus last week for the fifth semester of the pandemic era. What’s different about spring 2022, though, is that it is the first semester in which the University has actually gone backward in its return to normal operations. The entirely in-person fall 2021 has given way to a virtual start to the semester. Classes that cost an arm and a leg have been reduced to an experience akin to watching Khan Academy videos on YouTube. Students pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of online school, take-out meals, zero extracurricular activities and half-empty hockey games.
The University administration has sold these two weeks of remote instruction as a means of minimizing academic disruption for students returning to Ithaca (President Martha Pollack, you see, is really doing you a favor). But no one should be fooled. The administration has decided on remote instruction because it allows the University to maintain its absurd COVID surveillance apparatus without any of the associated logistical inconveniences.
The end of last semester and winter break should have represented something of a turning point in Cornell’s response to the coronavirus. Finally faced with the uncomfortable reality that sooner or later — mitigation measures or not — the vast majority of students would likely contract the virus, Cornell had an easy choice this semester. The University could continue testing, masking and obsessing over the virus, or it could accept that COVID is now an unfortunate part of our lives, but, given the minimal risk the virus poses to students, Cornell can move on (of the thousands of student cases in December, none were severe).
Unsurprisingly, President Pollack, Provost Michael Kotlikoff and the Board of Trustees have gone with the former option. And they have done so, because in the end, they don’t really care if you enjoy college, learn anything or have a meaningful four years here. They only care that you pay tuition and that the University’s policies fit into the accepted mainstream. After all, how can Cornell start in-person when most of its peer institutions are beginning the semester with remote instruction?
There is no incentive for college administrators to take bold or unconventional actions. The system rewards playing it safe and following the crowd, and that is exactly what Cornell’s leadership has done throughout the pandemic. (For those of you wondering about Cornell’s decision to bring everyone back during the 2020-2021 academic school year when many schools were fully remote, I think that had more to do with the high proportion of students who live off campus and could and would return anyway. I believe the administration worried that these students would fuel an outbreak for which the school would be blamed).
Despite Pollack’s pledge to “shift from counting positive cases to minimizing serious health risks,” all of the University’s COVID policies are premised on detecting positive cases. That is why Cornell wasted tens of thousands of in-demand antigen tests on its young, healthy student body. It is why Cornell refuses to allow students the basic privilege of eating in dining halls instead of alone in their rooms. It is why Provost Kotlikoff announced last week that the University would be using both antigen and saliva PCR tests for symptomatic students, just to be sure that some trace amount of virus is not missed.
As the CDC explained when it shortened the time for quarantine, a positive test is not necessarily predictive of whether a person remains infectious. Yet, Cornell is going out of its way to find trace amounts of virus in its students. That hardly sounds like an administration that’s moved away from a case-focused approach. And, if all this weren’t bad enough, the University continues to recommend its students wear masks outdoors, something even the CDC doesn’t deem beneficial (except in very crowded circumstances). That so many students mindlessly heed this request is perhaps the most depressing part of this whole unfortunate saga.
The vast majority of students currently at this University will have had over half of their college experiences marred by COVID. Despite mandating vaccines and boosters for all students and employees, the administration continues to subject its student body to restrictions more draconian than those of almost any workplace or institution. Madison Square Garden is packed to capacity with maskless fans every night for Knicks and Rangers’ games, but Cornell refused to allow capacity crowds for the January 2022 game against Harvard. (Rather than accept the lost revenue from limiting capacity, Cornell raised the student ticket price by five dollars — after all, the Lynah Faithful are adaptable and resilient).
This column is something of a broken record on COVID. And, to a certain extent, writing about the virus can feel like an exercise in futility. Everyone has dug into their positions, and COVID mitigation measures, like mask wearing, have taken on a significance to some people disproportionate to their actual impact. But apathy will not end these measures; only sustained opposition will. Cornell students (well, the ones not wearing masks outdoors) should not give up their hopes of a normal college experience and should continue to demand that the University deliver the experience it promised.
Matthew Samilow ’22 is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. On Mallot’s Front Steps runs every other Monday this semester.