Prioritizing public health, Cornell poised to start fall semester

Days before students begin moving back into Ithaca campus residence halls, senior Cornell leaders reaffirmed that concern for public health is driving the university’s fall reactivation strategy – which will pivot if conditions warrant.

“We want what is best, what is safest for our community, and we have and we’re going to continue to make all of our decisions on that basis,” President Martha E. Pollack said Aug. 20 during a virtual town hall for faculty and staff. “If we determine that it is no longer in the interest of our community’s health to have a residential semester, then I am fully prepared, fully committed to changing course, no matter how disruptive that may be.”

Cornell’s aggressive virus testing program sets it apart from many universities and colleges that have made headlines for reverting to online-only semesters, Pollack said. All returning Cornell students are being tested upon their arrival, then at least weekly – twice a week for undergraduates – throughout the semester to identify and isolate asymptomatic cases.

“That’s what’s going to let us do regular, frequent, repeated testing of our entire population with rapid, 24-hour turnaround,” Pollack said. “We’ve invested an enormous amount to get that up and running. And it just has not been done at a number of our peer schools.”

Cornell pursued its strategy for a residential fall, Pollack reiterated, because its epidemiological modeling showed it would result in substantially fewer infections than if instruction were only offered online. A large percentage of students planned to return to off-campus housing in Ithaca anyway, she said, and without reactivating campus, Cornell would have had limited ability to impose mandatory testing and behavioral restrictions.

“Our analyses show that in the residential setting, we can better control the number of infections,” Pollack said. “Without this aggressive testing program that we’ve invested so heavily in, and that we need all of our students to participate in, we wouldn’t be able to identify and isolate asymptomatic students who would otherwise be able to infect community members.”

In partnership with Cayuga Health System and the Tompkins County Health Department, Cornell has tested nearly 10,000 students, faculty and staff to date, yielding nine positive cases – a prevalence of less than 0.1%, said Gary Koretzky, vice provost for academic integration and a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Those tests included 3,300 undergraduates and more than 4,500 graduate and professional students, who accounted for eight of the positives – only two involving students from states on New York’s travel advisory list.

The student infection rate so far of 1 in 1,000, or 0.1%, is an order of magnitude less than what Cornell has prepared for, said Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff.

“It’s not a reason to be complacent, but it does counter some of the alarm that you may be hearing and certainly I’m hearing,” Kotlikoff said.

Ongoing arrival testing and surveillance testing that will begin Sept. 2 is considered the cornerstone of the reactivation strategy, but is complemented by numerous other safety precautions, the leaders said. Those include requirements to wear masks, practice physical distancing, limit social gatherings, and restrict travel and visitors – all covered by a behavioral compact that all students are required to sign – as well as modifications to facilities and cleaning procedures.

Pollack and Kotlikoff said the university’s modeling does not assume full compliance with every element of the plan. Sightings of some students not wearing masks in Collegetown or downtown do not mean that the strategy has broken down or the models are invalid, Kotlikoff said.

“I do believe deeply in our students and I’m certainly hopeful that we will be able to set an example for the nation in this regard.”

Ryan Lombardi

“That displays either a misunderstanding of the strategy, or an emotional or a political response that runs against our scientific approach,” Kotlikoff said. “From the beginning we have said we will rely on data.”

The university soon will unveil an online dashboard publicly displaying the metrics that university and local health officials will monitor daily to assess risk to the campus and regional communities.

“We want to be transparent; we have no interest in hiding data,” Pollack said. “We’re asking all of you to partner with us, cooperate with us, and we want to be cooperative in return.”

A color-coded threat level system will start at “green.” If any metric reaches a particular threshold, the leaders said, the level could be raised to yellow, orange or red, the last of which would prompt consideration of whether to deactivate the campus.

Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, highlighted a variety of measures in place to ensure students follow public health guidelines on and off campus, including the behavioral compact.

Starting during a phased move-in process, trained student volunteers will serve as peer ambassadors promoting public health messages and a culture of shared responsibility. University staff monitors already are roving campus and Collegetown on the lookout for behavioral compact violations, prepared to offer polite interventions.

An online tool will allow community members to report concerns that a university team will investigate, potentially leading to sanctions as severe as separation from the university. Fraternities and sororities have voluntarily imposed a moratorium on parties with alcohol for the fall.

“I do believe deeply in our students,” Lombardi said, “and I’m certainly hopeful that we will be able to set an example for the nation in this regard.”

Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education, discussed options for faculty to wear masks and/or face shields when teaching in person. She also said classrooms will be cleaned twice daily and be equipped with spray bottles of disinfectant.

Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, said it is impossible to know how long remote work arrangements that are helping to reduce campus density would last for some employees. She said others should work with supervisors to make sure they never feel pressured to work on campus unless necessary.

“Let’s continue to work together and try to have the most successful semester that we can,” Kotlikoff said.

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Abby Butler