Cornell students, faculty and staff may soon be looking at a return to normality on campus with lightened COVID-19 restrictions. New York State has taken recent strides, with Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) recently dropping the indoor federal mask mandate for vaccinated individuals in schools starting March 2.
The approach to a state of emergency usually relies on strong federal response to cities and states. Typically, the federal government informs the state governments on the correct actions to take, and it provides resources to support the state responses. The federal response to COVID-19 was much weaker, leaving states to fill in these gaps by designing and implementing responses for themselves.
“We’ve had this fragmented approach in this unusual way since the start of the pandemic,” said Prof. Charley Willison, public and ecosystem health. “This is in the context of a really politicized public health issue in ways which previous epidemics have not been politicized.”
Cornell has been exempt from a lot of the challenges that certain cities or sub-national governments in the United States have faced during the pandemic, including internal political pressures with public health. Cornell is a private institution with insulation from intense political influence, and it also has extensive financial resources to carry out testing and quarantine reservations.
Thus, Cornell quickly adapted to COVID-19 conditions as needed.
“Cornell has had a really extensive testing and tracing program, which we’ve known for decades is the best way to mitigate disease spread during epidemics,” Willison said.
However, Cornell’s decision to require masks will continue to align with the current data of COVID-19 cases on campus. According to Willison, Cornell will continue to keep a close eye on case data to determine its school-wide response.
“Cornell must keep close track on case rates, community spread, as well as severe illness and hospitalization going forward to make an evidence-based decision,” Willison said.
The case count includes not only cases on Cornell’s campus, but also within the greater Ithaca and Tompkins County community.
“It is imperative that Cornell continue to be evidence-based and be responsive to data as opposed to any political pressure that they might receive,” Willison said.
Tompkins County, following New York State guidelines, has followed this advisory from the CDC and lifted their mask mandate.
As this decision was made for New York State, some students expressed hope that this will mean a shift toward normalcy and a COVID-free college experience.
“I, along with most of my peers, want to move back towards not having to wear masks as it is the only experience I’ve had in college, and I would love to get more of a normal college experience,” said Ariel Schulsinger ’24.
Schulsinger and peers stated that they wish to move forward into a new phase of the pandemic that restores what campus was once like before COVID-19. However, they are still cautious about Cornell adhering to current data of cases to respond in the safest way possible.
“New York moving back toward its former mask days is a necessary step, but Cornell should wait and see if New York gets another spike of the virus and see what happens with COVID-19 rates before proceeding to make this decision,” Schulsinger said.
Despite current data, Cornell still finds itself in a precarious situation due to the possibility of new variants.
“The pandemic has been unpredictable,” said Willsion. “Even though we do have a greater proportion of the population vaccinated, a very large portion of the world is still unvaccinated and that creates the potential for new variants to arise.”
Though the vaccination rates at Cornell are high and cases are low, Willison says that students traveling during breaks will play a role in the spread of the virus and increasing the number of positive cases.
Though the decision to continue to require masks indoors on campus may be made, there is no guarantee whether Cornell’s mask policy will be reversed.
“The students are prepared to make this change, but I think it will be a gradual introduction of normalcy as opposed to a social free-for-all,” said Schulsinger.
Cornell, as of now, has slowly introduced the idea of moving toward the end of the pandemic by no longer requiring weekly testing for students, faculty and staff.
“Cornell is making the right move with dropping COVID-19 testing, and I’m curious to see what they do next with the mask policy,” said Schulsinger.
New York State is beginning to make large changes to pandemic measures, as Governor Hochul has announced that schools will drop their mask mandate beginning March 2.
The University has not yet announced if they will be following this policy.
With New York taking steps to move on from the pandemic, Schulsinger said that she hopes Cornell does the same in the future while keeping the safety and health of students, faculty and staff as a first priority.