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Cornell prepares for shift to virtual instruction

As the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic, Cornell began embarking on an unprecedented, universitywide effort to shift to online instruction for the rest of the semester following spring break – employing innovative measures to maximize learning and research while limiting the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus disease.

All undergraduate and many professional degree students are asked not to return to campus after spring break, which begins March 28, President Martha E. Pollack said in a statement March 10.

In addition to virtual instruction, Pollack said Cornell is tightening its policies for group events to prohibit all nonessential gatherings of more than 100 people, on and off campus, and strongly discouraging university-sponsored events that bring outside guests to campus.

The university is also strongly discouraging all domestic travel, both professional and personal, with the exception of students’ returning home for spring break. Restrictions on international travel are unchanged.

“These decisions were made only with great reluctance. I recognize how disruptive they will be and how much disappointment they will cause,” Pollack said. “But all of these actions are necessary if we are to be responsive to the recommendations of public health officials regarding how best to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health of our community, especially the most vulnerable among us.”

In a follow-up statement March 11, Pollack said, “The best way that we can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing … even before there is direct evidence of the disease in the community.”

Cornell joined a growing number of colleges and universities shifting to remote learning, including Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, both of which also asked students not to return after spring break – among six of the eight Ivy League schools that have moved to virtual instruction, at least temporarily. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the City University of New York and the State University of New York would reduce in-person classes and maximize online learning for the remainder of the semester, beginning March 19.

The Ivy League has canceled all spring athletic events through the end of the semester.

There are currently no known cases of COVID-19 at Cornell or in Tompkins County. Given the number of confirmed cases in New York City, all Cornell programming in the five boroughs will move online. Weill Cornell Medicine is already holding classes online, and Cornell Tech will begin doing so March 12.

“This is an extraordinary situation for us, but I think everyone can appreciate that the health and safety of our community is always the first thing at the top of our minds.”

Ryan Lombardi

In Ithaca, students who are unable to return home due to exceptional circumstances will be accommodated on campus; dining halls will remain open, but on-campus activities will be “severely limited,” Pollack said. Students will receive detailed instructions regarding move-out procedures, as well as a process for petitioning to remain in on-campus housing.

The provost’s office and the dean of the faculty have been actively engaged with college and school deans over the past several weeks to prepare for a shift to virtual learning with minimal disruption, Pollack said. The Center for Teaching Innovation has assembled a comprehensive set of resources to assist faculty and, with Cornell Information Technology (CIT), is preparing resources to assist faculty and students in connecting to Zoom and other remote-access tools.

“We’ve been working hard to get faculty prepared to face this transition,” said John Siliciano, deputy provost and professor of law.

CIT has been working with the vendors of Zoom, Canvas and other applications over recent weeks to ensure that their bandwidth and technical support staff can meet the demand for remote learning. Because the applications are cloud-based, no issues with access or bandwidth are anticipated, according to David Lifka, chief information officer and vice president for information technologies.

“We will implement a transition period in advance of spring break to ensure that remote access and instruction are functioning smoothly,” Lifka said.

Deans have been working with department chairs and faculty to develop creative solutions for interactive courses such as labs, design studios or community-based engaged learning, administrators said.

“We must all be realistic about the challenges that both you and our students will encounter in areas such as laboratories or physical instruction that are extraordinarily difficult to replicate online,” Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff said in an email to faculty March 11, urging instructors to improvise and be flexible.

Though classes will be entirely virtual beginning April 7, the Ithaca campus will remain open, and faculty and staff will follow their regular work schedules.

“We are working to understand what our needs will be and how we can best support all who work at Cornell,” Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, said in a statement to staff. “We will reassess our workplace guidance as new information becomes available.”

Cornell Health, which has already been equipped to handle a surge in patients for influenza season, can test in-house for COVID-19 if the criteria are met. Cornell Health is also piloting a secure process enabling students to access clinicians virtually, said Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being.

“We are developing our capacity to care for our students remotely,” McMullen said. “There is functionality built in to allow for telemedicine and telecounseling. We have not needed it in the past, but we are getting it ready for this occasion.”

Cornell Building Care staff are following recommended cleaning guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York State Department of Health. Beginning March 11, Cornell Dining eliminated all self-service options, converting from china to disposable containers and suspending use of reusable cups.

Students, faculty and staff are all encouraged to follow good hygiene practices, minimizing close contact among groups of people and staying home if ill.

“This is an extraordinary situation for us, but I think everyone can appreciate that the health and safety of our community is always the first thing at the top of our minds,” said Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life. “This is an incredibly fast-moving and rapidly evolving situation, and many more details will be fleshed out in the coming weeks.”

Visit Cornell’s coronavirus website for ongoing updates.

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Abby Butler