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President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Mike Kotlikoff discuss the start of the semester, COVID-19 testing and how Cornell is working to limit the spread of the virus in the campus community and greater Ithaca area.

Cornell Leadership Sessions: start of semester updates

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 first video of the new series, President Martha E. Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff discuss the start of the semester, testing and how Cornell is working to protect the campus community and greater Ithaca area:

Martha E. Pollack: Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us. I’m Martha Pollack, the president of Cornell. And I’m here today with the provost, Mike Kotlikoff, to talk about what’s been happening as we’ve reopened for the fall. You know, I’m just so delighted to have so many students back with us. It was an enormous amount of work to get here.

There were people working incredibly hard on so many things. We set up a testing lab that can test 50,000 people a week. We tested and upgraded ventilation systems. We basically rebuilt our enrollment system. We adopted an app to reserve study space and to reserve space in dining halls. We rented hotel rooms so students coming back to the dormitories could stay there their first night until they got their quarantine results.

And, of course, all of our faculty have worked extraordinarily hard to change their classes to make them appropriate for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

So, it’s really been a huge challenge. But I’m so gratified by how hard everybody’s chipped in. And you know, it hasn’t been perfect. I don’t think anything of this magnitude has been perfect. But so far, I think it’s been going really quite well.

Michael Kotlikoff: Let me just add that I think it has been going very well – in fact, perhaps better than predicted. It’s early days. But by that, I mean that the number of new infections that we’ve seen are lower than what we predicted.

The system that Martha has described is working. It’s in place. We’ve had, since mid-August, 87 positives. That’s 0.3% of our population for the month or almost the month.

And importantly, the vast majority of those have been asymptomatic students. We’ve had some clusters associated with some behavior issues. But we had modeled that and predicted some of that.

The most important thing is, we’ve had no community spread – that is, no broad spread within the Cornell community or, importantly, within our greater Tompkins County community. We’ve had no significant disease. And we’ve got a very low rate of ongoing infections.

MEP: Let me say a little bit about our dashboard. All along I, and all of us, have wanted to be transparent. We’ve wanted to be accountable. And that’s what drove the development of our dashboard. The goal in our dashboard is to share the information we have, to be clear about how much testing we’re doing, how many cases of COVID-19 we’re seeing, how those cases are split up between students on the one hand and faculty and staff on the other.

Now, it’s taken a little bit of time to get ourselves coordinated. We’ve been learning as we’ve gone. We’ve made some minor adjustments and tweaks as we’ve gotten feedback from the community.

But I think we really are getting the information out there so that everybody can see it. We update the dashboard every evening, Monday through Friday. And I hope that you take a look at the dashboard so that you can see really how much testing we’ve already done, how much we’re going to keep doing, and also how, so far at least, our rate of infections is very low.

MK: I would just add that we really wanted to do two things with the dashboard: one, as Martha said, give a sense of the data, in a very transparent and open way so that people have confidence about what is going on. But then in a more general sense, give a level of a sense of how we’re doing. And that’s what the alerts are meant to do – really to try and capture a number of parameters and give the community a sense of where we are.

Behind those individual alert levels, there are lots of metrics. And there are responses or remedies that we would take as we go from one level to another. But we’re trying to provide a kind of simple benchmark for the community to understand where we are and, again, provide both transparency and some level of confidence that we are sharing all of those data.

We’re seeing a relatively low rate of prevalence – in fact, as I mentioned, a much lower rate than we had predicted, both from the students entering and in our general surveillance testing. Where we are seeing some infection clusters are in areas where we’re having parties – largely for students and largely off campus.

And we had predicted those. We are doing a lot to try and monitor those and also communicate the importance of not endangering the community at large. But I would say that the shift to online instruction would not really address where those infections are coming from. And [it,] of course, underlies our overall strategy to have an in-person semester, where we can monitor students and have them in safe environments as much as possible.

MEP: We are doing all the things that we have talked about doing: testing, separating students in the classroom, and making it possible in dining halls to sit far apart from one another, having a public health campaign, trying to teach everybody what needs to be done.

What we need is for everyone in the community to do the right thing from a public health standpoint. We need people to wear masks. We need people to socially distance. We need people to avoid large or, frankly, even medium-sized gatherings. We need people to wash their hands.

I am seeing lots of students on campus doing just those things. And I really appreciate it. In fact, I want to call out the efforts of our students, and especially our student-athletes, who I think after that initial cluster was identified worked really diligently to lead the way and to help show how these steps, taken consistently – but they have to be taken consistently by everyone – can help us have a really successful semester. So please, keep it up.

MK: That’s a great point, Martha. Let me second that: The vast majority of our student body and faculty and staff are really doing everything that they can to ensure our safety.

MEP: Thanks again, everybody. We look forward to continuing to talk with you over the coming weeks.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli