February 7, 2022

SMITH | In Defense of the Cornell Testing Program

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In the haze of our two weeks of Zoom University, my only tethers to Cornell were my biweekly testing appointments and my shifts as a surveillance site worker. It makes sense, therefore, that that is where the majority of my thoughts center. The surveillance testing program is ever-changing; it has gone through numerous iterations since it started in 2020 as vaccines have rolled out and new variants have surfaced. 

When I read my fellow opinion columnist Matthew Samilow ’22’s article critiquing Cornell’s management of surveillance for the spring 2022 semester, I certainly resonated with his frustration over yet another semester of a modified, and in many ways lessened, college experience. It’s hard for me to even believe we’re two weeks into the semester because of how much less I feel like a student over Zoom. It’s so easy for lectures to become background noise to laundry folding or for a lack of extracurricular activities to make you feel isolated from the rest of the student body. 

However, Samilow and I differ on our feelings about the University’s actions to control COVID on campus. I believe he fails to recognize — as this pandemic has taught us — that our own comfortability doesn’t always match the comfortability of others. I’m still nervous in the aftermath of the end of last semester. It didn’t feel like a turning point for me. It just felt like another chapter in this exhausting saga.

Even though there were no severe cases on campus last semester, Samilow neglects to recognize immunocompromised students and faculty or the responsibility students have to the larger Ithaca community. I am one of the students to whom COVID poses a greater risk: A fever greater than around 100°F could put me in the hospital, despite the fact that most people could manage at home. Beyond me, there are many people who are very sick, are experiencing long COVID and those who have unvaccinated children at home.

Cornell has to manage the wide range of comfortability students and staff have with the pandemic. Allowing two weeks to stagger a return and establish low positive case numbers, to me, is far more responsible than throwing up our arms and letting herd immunity do its thing. Yes, it stinks a little, but the low positivity rate allows us to reduce testing to once weekly with confidence for the majority of students. To suggest that Cornell is maintaining an archaic “apparatus” neglects the dynamic nature of the program, made evident by its pivot from the original announcement about the return of biweekly testing in response to new data. The antigen kits were only a temporary measure for arrival testing. This is based on research, the current numbers and the vaccination and booster status of people on campus. 

I admit some bias from my position as an on-and-off surveillance site worker. I know how tirelessly people work behind the scenes to monitor cases, distribute tests, troubleshoot technical difficulties and more. It hurts to read critiques of the program positioning it as more of a PR stunt or an attempt to keep up with other universities hurts. We have all anticipated the end of the pandemic since it began, but — at least for me — pandemic living has changed the way I function. Knowing the surveillance program is in place allows me to enter campus comfortably, eat my lunch in MVR or Klarman and ease any paranoia about sitting in a seat directly next to a classmate. I don’t know exactly what my fellow opinion writer means by “bold or unconventional actions,” but I’m happy with what others may consider “playing it safe.” 

Some of my fears smack of growing pains. In many ways, the goal is for the testing program to fade into nothingness. As a senior like Samilow, I know what it was like to be at college before COVID, and I miss it too. I’d love to be able to stroll into a packed Cornell Cinema unmasked or stand shoulder to shoulder with other Cornelians at a game in Lynah Rink. But the testing program has allowed me to live the closest to that “normal” as I can, and gives me the comfort to go about my day without being as afraid of contracting COVID-19. Because of the protocols in place, I am far less worried about contracting COVID on campus than I was when I visited home for the holidays.

So no, I don’t feel betrayed by Cornell because of the protocols for Spring 2022. They are a negotiation between ever-emerging data and a spectrum of comfortability — between acknowledging real risk and the universal desire to live as close to normal as possible. The program hasn’t stayed stagnant since the start of hybrid instruction in Fall 2020 and it will continue to change. It’s hard to hit the sweet spot when balancing so many opinions and unknowns, but I’m satisfied with it for the most part. All I can say is be safe out there, kids. And check your Cayuga Med portals.

Emma Smith (she/they) is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Emmpathy appears every other Monday this semester.