President outlines rationale of switch to virtual education

Cornell President Martha E. Pollack sent the following message to the Cornell community:

I appreciate all of the input that my leadership team and I have received since yesterday’s announcement of the measures we are enacting to contain the spread of COVID-19. One thing that has been particularly gratifying in the conversations that I have had is the clear extent to which our students love Cornell, as evidenced by the emotions that have surfaced as they process the need to leave campus earlier than anticipated. It is also clear to me that not everyone understands the rationale behind our move to virtual education, so I wanted to reach out again today to provide a more detailed explanation.

Public health experts tell us that there are two phases to controlling a pandemic. The first is containment; you try to limit the geographic spread of the disease through steps like quarantining and contact tracing. For COVID-19 in the United States, we are beyond the point of containment. You then shift to the second phase: mitigation. Here, the goal is to slow the spread of the disease. This accomplishes several things. It buys time to put in place strategies to help the most vulnerable (e.g., meal deliveries that allow older adults to stay at home). It buys time for seasonal change impacts, as warm weather may reduce transmission of this virus. It buys time to develop medical interventions and possibly even vaccines. And, most importantly, it distributes the cases of illness over time, preventing health care systems from being overwhelmed. This is particularly crucial to saving lives. 

The best way that we can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing. Simply put, you work to minimize the number of interactions that provide the opportunity for the disease to spread. So, to the extent possible, you limit or eliminate large groups of people coming together and you try to minimize the number of people congregating in close settings. Universities are places that, by definition, have these elements; most notably in dormitories, where many students live closely together, eat together and share bathrooms, and in classrooms, where many students often sit in close proximity for extended periods of time.

Social distancing also works best when it starts early, even before there is direct evidence of the disease in the community. That’s why we’re putting in place now a plan to move to virtual instruction, even though there have not yet been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tompkins County. I stress “confirmed” because public health experts tell us that a large number of COVID-19 cases are very mild or even asymptomatic.

Indeed, many of our peer institutions are sending students home and moving to virtual instruction immediately. This aligns with their earlier spring breaks. Our break is several weeks later, and we made the decision to delay the shift until then, both to simplify planning for our students and to give our faculty more time to develop and test alternative teaching methods. However, if the disease were to surface within the campus community before the start of spring break, we will need to accelerate our timeline. 

One question that students have raised is: why are we doing this when most people of the typical age of our student body recover easily from COVID-19? Fortunately, it is true that most do. But we have students who, for one reason or another, are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable and thus are at risk for the more serious form of the disease. And, importantly, we have thousands of faculty and staff – as well as the local community with whom we interact – many of whom are older and/or have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable were they to be exposed to a carrier of the virus. We need to act as a community to protect the whole community. In addition, beyond our own campus and community, social distancing is extremely important as a way in which we can help to address and mitigate this global pandemic. 

Students have also asked: wouldn’t it be safer to stay on campus rather than go home? That is an extremely difficult question to answer, because, of course, the answer is different for every student. But the nature of universities, with many people coming and going and with many large events, and students living in close quarters, does pose an inherent risk. And that risk would greatly increase were thousands of students to go off for spring break and then return to Ithaca from destinations around the country and, possibly, the world. 

We strongly encourage all of our students, when they get home, to practice social distancing there and to avoid large events and gatherings until this pandemic has settled down.

I recognize that we may not have answers yet to all of the questions that are surfacing in light of yesterday’s announcement; please know that we are continually working on providing answers, which will continue to be communicated in follow-up messages to various segments of our community from members of the leadership team. 

As I said yesterday, I realize how deeply disruptive and disappointing these steps are for everyone. But I hope that this explanation helps you to better understand why we are taking these unprecedented, yet necessary steps.

Media Contact

John Carberry