Two years later, a dwindling number of students on campus remember when the University shut down on March 13, 2020 as COVID-19 began to appear in the United States.
Perhaps relaxing in their dorms, enjoying the company of friends while they still could or studying for prelim they would have to take that night, students suddenly found their campus shut down, students being ordered off campus and courses suspended until April 6.
Many learned of the move through the leaked image of an official University email that would follow shortly, and the news went viral. As COVID-19 took root in the United States, the University shut down as a preventative measure against the spread of the disease weeks earlier than it was scheduled to.
Checking their phones for information, texting their friends and family about the news, enjoying each other’s physical company while they could and spending remaining Big Red Bucks with abandon, many students were shocked and amazed as they scrambled to make travel and storage arrangements.
The University would eventually provide complementary storage, and make other accommodations to students dealing with the sudden change. Classes would resume online, with many students thousands of miles away, after three weeks of no instruction including Spring break.
The shutdown was a time of panic, amplified by the newness and lack of understanding of the COVID-19 virus.
“At first it was super serious, people were scared to death, people were crying that they’re immunocompromised, they’re gonna die. Some of my friends were crying like crazy… families were getting sick and passing away,” said Lordina Amoako ’23. “Everybody was kind of shocked and went into a frenzy. Some people were getting drunk because they thought it was the end of the world… some people made rash decisions.”
For students new to campus — like Grace Fairchild ’22, a transfer student who was in her first semester at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations when campus closed — the shutdown cut short what was meant to be the beginning of their Cornell experience.
“I was still really trying to figure out my place at Cornell, I was still trying to make friends and figure out different things I would be involved in,” Fairchild said. “And then it really just felt… like the rug was just pulled from underneath my feet.”
For seniors, the shut down often meant a lack of closure, and a disappointing end to their time at Cornell.
“There was a moment where everyone thought after spring break [the pandemic] could be over. And then there was a moment where everyone thought that after the summer, it will be over,” Tomas De Las Casas ’20 said. “I never had [a] graduation event… I was invited back for my graduation ceremony like a year and a half later and I just didn’t end up going because it was so behind me already [and] the pandemic was still going on.”
The shutdown was especially disruptive to international students. Amoako, an international student from Kumasi, Ghana, was stuck on an abandoned campus. Financial and planning difficulties prevented her from leaving, and issues accessing Wi-Fi at home could have prevented her from taking classes online in Ghana. Amoako stayed on campus, and has not been home in over two years.
“When everything happened, everybody was leaving, and I couldn’t go home because home was too far away… I found myself alone in the dorm… I couldn’t say goodbye to so many people,” Amoako said.
Amoako also noted that major changes seemed to come at disorienting speed in those initial days.
“[Prior to the pandemic] you [could] go to the dining hall… swipe your ID yourself [and] get close to the lady at the counter. And the next day you go and she’s like, ‘No, you have to wear a mask… Don’t get close to me,’” Amoako said.
Administrators also had to deal with new and uncertain circumstances. Vice Provost Gary Koretzky began work as a Cornell administrator in April 2020 with the campus already closed. He drew on his own background in infectious disease and the work of University and local health experts to help steer the University through the pandemic.
“I think, at the time, I was really hopeful that… certainly in a five year timeframe, things would be much, much more normal… The question was, how to get from where we were to there,” Koretzky said.
Much was uncertain, whether the virus was contact or respiratory, and people were uncertain whether it was best to wear masks, or to be selfish, as doing so decreased the already low supply available to healthcare workers.
“Uncertainty was the only thing we were certain [of]… It was so difficult to plan,” Koretzky said. “It was a brand new virus. So essentially the entire population was… susceptible… [And] we recognized… how easily it was transmitted.”
After spending the spring 2020 semester finishing their courses over Zoom, many students chose to return to campus in the fall when offered a choice by the University.
“I just really needed to be in person and I needed to be involved. And I needed to be around people,” Fairchild said. “There are other people that really valued the time that they had with their families and… weren’t in a hurry to finish their degree, but I just needed to be back on track, and coming back helped me.”
As learning modalities have changed, so too have University policies and feelings about the pandemic. On March 14, the University relaxed the campus-wide mask mandate, and the initial shock of the pandemic has begun to wear off.
“For me it’s kind of getting to a stage where it’s not considered serious, like, when people get it, they’re not as scared, they’re like ‘I’m gonna be fine in five days’… they think their lives are gonna go back to normal,” Amoako said.
Looking back on March 2020, Fairchild said that, despite the circumstances, she’s come to terms with the pandemic and made the most of it.
“I don’t really have any regrets. Because I feel like I made the most of the time that I did have,” Fairchild said. “I worked with what I had.”