Exactly three years ago Monday, Cornellians sat next to each other in classrooms and chatted face-to-face, while professors spoke, maskless, to lecture halls full of students. They thought this would be the last day of classes for three weeks. It turned out to be more than two years before the campus would return to a sense of normalcy.
Through quarantine regulations, masking requirements and weekly mandatory testing, students and faculty navigated the pandemic together. Each class year currently at Cornell faced different challenges and opportunities throughout their time at the University, with the Class of 2023 the only one to experience pre-pandemic Cornell.
In December 2019, Abby Drucker ’23 recalled hearing about the coronavirus for the first time. As a first-year experiencing the excitement of campus, she didn’t imagine that a virus that had yet to make it to the United States would have an impact on her daily life.
“First semester freshman year was overwhelming, but in a great way, because you entered a new atmosphere and you’re meeting so many new people,” Drucker said. “Back in December, I had heard of some virus in China. My mom was always saying make sure to wash your hands and whatnot, but I don’t think anybody expected it to be as big as it was.”
On March 10, 2020, Cornell announced that the University would go virtual for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester following spring break on March 27. However, in a move that was described as “unexpected,” President Martha Pollack released an update on March 13, 2020 that all in-person instruction would be suspended immediately and students were strongly encouraged to return to their permanent residences.
Drucker remembers going on a run and seeing a friend who asked if she had seen the announcement. Chris McDermott ’23 recalls waiting for the University’s announcement email in his dorm building.
“People were just running out into the hallway, just reading out what the email had said,” McDermott said. “I just remember there being mixed emotions. People were happy, they were scared, they were confused.”
On March 20, 2020, the first reported positive cases of COVID-19 at Cornell were documented. In the new era of social distancing and uncertainty, students and faculty had to readjust courses and learn how to teach and participate in classes virtually.
“People had to consider their courses in different ways, and as they learned new skills, they thought about pedagogy more,” said Prof. Justin St. Juliana, ecology and evolutionary biology. “A lot of courses — not just mine — have dramatically improved. We went through a hard time, but we walked away with valuable skills and information.”
At the same time that students were forced to leave campus, students in the Class of 2024 were receiving their acceptance letters to the University. Although campus tours, Cornell Days — an event for admitted students to meet potential classmates and sit in on lectures — and in-person senior years were not a reality given the health crisis, future Cornellians felt excited to be admitted, but nervous for what the Fall 2020 semester would look like.
Salma Hazimeh ’24 commented on her anticipation of the Fall 2020 semester — also her first semester at Cornell.
“Originally, I was a bit nervous [about coming to campus], because it was prior to the vaccine, so I wasn’t really sure how everything would pan out,” Hazimeh, who spent the semester on campus, said. “I was definitely still eager to go, just because I was excited to be on campus for the first time [and] have my first college experiences. But there was still this looming sense of concern over how the semester would pan out, especially when Cornell didn’t necessarily have all of the answers.”
Pollack announced on June 30, 2020 that Cornell’s campus would reopen for the Fall 2020 semester, offering a range of in-person, hybrid and online classes. In the announcement, Pollack said that students’ returning to Ithaca would be the safest option for public health, citing epidemiological modeling from a team led by Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering.
“I trusted the administration here. They had done pretty sophisticated modeling that showed that we were going to be okay,” said Prof. Joseph Sullivan, sociology, who began teaching at Cornell during the Fall 2020 semester.
To ensure a safe return to campus, the University implemented numerous COVID-19 move-in policies. Before moving into on-campus housing, students were required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Upon arriving at Cornell, they received PCR COVID-19 tests and had to isolate in their dorm rooms or in hotels as they awaited their test results. For students who planned to live in residence halls and came from states on the New York State Travel Advisory list, a 14-day quarantine in New York or another state not on the list was required before arrival to campus.
Students also had the option of attending all classes remotely for the Fall 2020 semester.
“There was definitely concerns about whether or not school would be in-person,” said Althea Bata ’24, who was newly admitted into the University. “For safety reasons, I ultimately decided to be remote.”
Bata completed her classes from Staten Island, New York, and said she felt disconnected from the University and had to take a lot of initiative to get involved in campus organizations virtually. Since many of her peers in the Dyson School of Business decided to attend the semester in person, Bata said she experienced a “fear of missing out” before joining the Cornell community in person for the Spring 2021 semester.
For students who chose to come to campus in the Fall 2020 semester, they remember a campus riddled with regulations and social distancing requirements.
“I remember, in the dorm common rooms, we weren’t allowed to take our masks off, which is very reasonable. … Looking back, I’m definitely grateful for these restrictions, but I remember being a freshman and feeling super isolated,” Hazimeh said. “When I think about how huge Cornell is and how we had a relatively successful 2020 to 2021 year, I can better understand the administration’s no-tolerance policies and strictness.”
Throughout the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Cornell tracked the number of active cases per day on its COVID-19 dashboard. Though the University experienced several COVID-19 spikes and transitions to alert level yellow — instituting increased restrictions on student activity — campus remained open for the duration of the year.
Lewis Sisler ’25 said the way in which Cornell handled the pandemic, especially as compared to other universities, influenced his decision to come to Cornell in the fall.
“Looking at how [schools] had responded to COVID-19 initially was probably going to be telling of how they would respond to it later,” Sisler said. “And the fact that [some other schools] basically shut down and Cornell still conducted in-person classes and things like that was a reassurance that my college experience wouldn’t be miserable if [anything] happened with COVID-19.”
As the first COVID-19 vaccine became available to New Yorkers aged 16 and older on April 6, 2021, many students and faculty were inoculated against the virus. Several days prior, on April 2, 2021, Cornell announced that it intended to require vaccination for students returning to campus for the fall, as well as several plans to resume in-person instruction according to levels of campus-wide immunity.
McDermott received his first two doses of the vaccine while home during the Spring 2022 semester. Though he was still wary of COVID-19 following his inoculation, he said the vaccine reduced his worry about how severely the virus would impact him if he were infected.
As the summer approached, the University relaxed its physical distancing and masking policies for fully vaccinated members of the campus community. Although Cornell initially planned to remove all masking and testing requirements for vaccinated students for the Fall 2021 semester, its policy changed to require indoor masking due to increased transmission of the virus’s more contagious Delta variant.
Toward the end of the Fall 2021 semester, yet another COVID-19 variant arose — omicron. Though Cornell initially intended to complete finals period in person, the University ended up moving exams to an online format, as well as beginning the first two weeks of the Spring 2022 semester virtually.
“Looking at how my sophomore fall panned out, with campus getting shut down, and my finals getting moved online, I can see why those [past COVID-19] restrictions were so valuable,” Hazimeh said.
While high-quality masks were still required in all campus buildings, the mandatory surveillance testing requirements were lifted in February 2022 for those who were fully vaccinated. The University suspended its masking requirement for most on campus spaces on March 14, 2022 — and 10 days later, moved to code yellow.
As Cornell navigated the two years of the pandemic, so did the current Class of 2026, who began applying for college in the fall of 2021. Some students, like Ceci Rodriguez ’26, felt that the pandemic hindered their ability to develop their applications.
“[COVID-19] kind of put a dent in where I was for extracurriculars,” Rodriguez said. “So, I was just stressed out — I didn’t feel like I was doing enough to make my application stand out, because all of these opportunities got taken away from us.”
Rodriguez added that the University’s test optional policy — which many schools across the country also adopted in response to the pandemic — made her feel that the other aspects of her application held more importance in helping her stand out.
“I was also writing my personal statement for college, and it was very difficult to write that because everybody’s writing about COVID-19,” Rodriguez said. “You need it to be a really good essay, because now that they’re not really looking at SAT or ACT scores, how am I going to stand out from everybody else that’s now applying?”
Moving into the 2022-2023 school year, masks were not required but “strongly encouraged” and the University completely discontinued its PCR testing sites, although antigen tests were still available. Students and faculty began to return to pre-pandemic traditions and fear of the virus lessened on campus.
“I go days without even thinking about COVID-19,” said Lindsay Lee ’25. “Whatever the University is doing, it seems to be working because I haven’t heard people freaking out about COVID-19 or even contracting COVID-19.”
Rodriguez, who has three autoimmune conditions, expressed a contrasting opinion. Medications that she takes regularly limit her body’s production of white blood cells, she said, weakening her immune system.
“When I get a cold, I’ll get a cold for three weeks… I’ll be sick for a very long time, and it affects me a lot physically,” Rodriguez said. “If a cold hits me so hard that I can’t get out of bed, and I’m sick for three weeks — imagine COVID-19.”
Rodriguez said she thinks masks should still be required indoors to protect students’ health, as they are more effective when everyone in a room is wearing one.
“If we’re required to wear [masks] at Cornell Health, ideally we should be required to wear them in every establishment. … Your chances of getting COVID-19 in the building of Cornell Health [are] still the same chances of getting COVID-19 in any other building on campus,” Rodriguez said. “So why should [masking] not apply to all buildings on campus as well?”
As campus returns to a sense of normalcy, students and faculty feel more connected to one another, but lasting effects of the pandemic can still be felt.
“[A big change is] the willingness of people to use Zoom. I’m so much more able to efficiently do my job,” St. Juliana said. “I think that in some ways, [Zoom] made us feel more distant, but it also enabled us to be more connected in certain ways. If a student has a problem, they can Zoom in with their TA instead of walking all the way across campus to attend a meeting.”
For Bata, being on campus with few restrictions allowed her to start the Cornell FinTech Club, and she has noticed how much easier it is to get students excited and engaged in the application process when recruitment is in-person.
“A lot of juniors, we feel like we were just starting out in college because we’re starting to go to all the events or just feeling like there’s no restrictions now,” Bata said. “The experience is much better being in person and seeing a lot of things coming back.”
Sullivan has seen Cornell’s campus operate without COVID-19 restrictions for the first time this year, which contrasts with the desolate campus to which he arrived in the fall of 2020.
“Especially in the beginning, the campus was obviously not as alive, not as populated. People were not out and about, and that was interesting,” Sullivan said. “It’s interesting to see the campus come alive again.”
Ultimately, students and faculty alike said COVID-19 fostered their appreciation for the daily mundanities of post-pandemic life.
“It made me a lot more grateful for my college experience than I would have been,” said Elizabeth Musso ’26. “I’m definitely going to appreciate the little things at Cornell a lot more.”