President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff discuss the recent decline in cases on campus and lowering of the alert level to green.

Cornell Leadership Sessions: back to green, cautiously

Cornell Leadership Sessions is an ongoing video series in which members of the administration discuss university efforts related to the campus reactivation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit for the latest information and resources.

In the second video of the series, President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff discuss the recent decline in cases on campus and lowering of the alert level, the return to the classroom and “educational verve,” and the importance of remaining on campus through the end of the semester:

Martha E. Pollack: Thank you all for joining us for our next leadership session. I’m Martha Pollack, the president of Cornell, and I’m here with our provost, Mike Kotlikoff. So our alert level framework is set up to allow us to be nimble, to respond to changing circumstances, to let the community know what’s going on, and to put in place appropriate constraints as the situation changes.

We started the semester at green, which is what we’re calling the new normal. And then we saw a cluster of positive cases in early September. I think people know they came from some small social gatherings where people didn’t wear face coverings, and they didn’t follow social distancing guidelines. It was unfortunate, not totally unexpected, but unfortunate. And at that point, our principles led us to move the alert level to yellow, which is what we call low-to-moderate risk.

Since then, more recently, we’ve seen a real decline in the number of cases per day. That’s a very positive sign. And our other indicators are positive as well. So university leadership decided to go back to green in our alert level. Now, we are making one change. We’re a learning organization. We’re learning as we go.

And one of the things we learned was that it was really important to keep the limit on social gatherings to 10. So even as we go back down to green, that limit is going to stay in place. All that said, what I see are so many members of our community – faculty, staff and students – striving to make the best of this semester, striving to really do the right thing for public health under very difficult circumstances. I’m just really proud of that. It’s really wonderful. Please keep it up.

Michael Kotlikoff: Well, first let me tell you, Martha, that I just got tested, my first time, after spending months working on setting up this system, and it went really smoothly. I went over to Sage Hall. There was a long line, but I was out in seven minutes.

MEP: Terrific.

MK: Earlier this week, we tested about 9,000 students, faculty and staff, with no positives. This indicates to me that we’ve been able to quickly identify the positives and isolate them from spreading. That was the original idea of surveillance testing of all students, and it seems to be working.

But as Martha says, we must continue to observe all of the precautions that we’ve put in place. Importantly, we have had no spread in classrooms. That’s to say that we’ve detected a couple of positives and then gone back and tested all of the students in those classes and found no one else infected. So spread is not occurring in the classroom.

And teaching is going very, very well, as well. Our students are overwhelmingly happy to be back in class. I’ve heard really encouraging reports of students ending a class by applauding the faculty who are teaching in person and lining up – socially distanced, of course – to say thank you to the faculty. Of course, not everyone is attending in-person classes, but our online courses are also going well.

So Cornell does look different this year, but it’s still Cornell, despite all the changes and all the challenges. Amazingly, we’ve had 98% of last year’s fall enrollment. In the words of Julia Thom-Levy, our VP for academic innovation, we’ve never seen more educational verve at Cornell than we have this year. We have a performing and media arts course developing a socially distanced dance performance. Our engineering labs are sending lab kits to students to allow for at-home experimentation. And then finally, we have an entomology class with online lectures, but the students and the faculty go out and discover bugs under logs in a socially distanced manner. The professor also sends a treasure box of collection equipment and a cheap digital microscope to our remote students so they can collect insects from all around the world.

MEP: Thanks for that, Mike. I’m a big fan of educational verve, and I want to get one of those treasure boxes so I can go out and collect bugs under logs. Seriously, I am just so gratified by the hard work that our faculty have put in to make this semester a success.

I also want to give a shout-out to our COVID-19 peer ambassadors and our other student leaders who are really setting an example for other students. And of course, I want to give a shout-out to the staff who are coming in and making this semester possible. It’s really an all-campus effort, and it is just really wonderful to watch it come together.

So all of our students are expected to stay on the Cornell campus or in the greater Ithaca area throughout the fall semester. That’s why, for example, we’re ending the in-person component of the semester at Thanksgiving so students don’t go home and come back. Because look, once we have really low infection numbers here, it’s travel in and out of the region that can compromise that.

Now, you may have some exceptional circumstance. You may have a family emergency. And if that happens and you have to travel out of the local region, then you have to register your travel with us. But travel really should be restricted to those exceptional circumstances.

I do know that there are some religious holidays approaching – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Diwali, others – and, of course, there’s a desire to be with your family during the holidays. But we need you to make that sacrifice this year and stay here in Ithaca. We have staff at the Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making, we have staff at Cornell United Religious Work, and they’re available to talk with you on an individual basis and provide support in meeting your spiritual and religious needs.

We know that there’s some religious services still happening online. We know that there are many affiliated religious organizations that are hosting things like online virtual study groups, or spiritual practice sessions, or even just social gatherings around the holiday. So please check with the Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making. Look at their website to learn more. But please, please stay here in Ithaca for the entire semester. We want this to be a successful semester.

MK: Thank you, everyone. Martha and I look forward to seeing you next time.

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Rebecca Valli