Cornell details safety measures for spring semester

President Martha E. Pollack, Provost Mike Kotlikoff, and Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Opperman issued the following statement Jan. 6:

As we prepare for the start of the spring semester, we have been focusing on two important goals: protecting the health of our campus and the surrounding community and ensuring that our students have the best possible residential educational experience. And, as has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic, our planning relies heavily on the evolving scientific evidence.

While there is still much to learn about the Omicron variant that now is predominant in the United States, the scientific evidence is pointing towards an overall health risk that is lower than previous variants – especially among fully vaccinated and boosted populations such as we have at Cornell. The increased transmissibility of Omicron, however, makes it far more difficult to limit infection. Indeed, there is no way to entirely contain Omicron, just as we cannot entirely eliminate influenza or other respiratory illnesses. Our focus needs to shift from counting positive cases to avoiding serious health risks.

Each semester since the pandemic began, the return of students from around the world has created a ripe opportunity for case spread. Our modeling suggests that Cornell could see a large number of cases during the first few weeks, although given our almost entirely vaccinated and largely boosted population, the vast majority of these cases will be mild or asymptomatic. This expected, early-semester spike poses several challenges for universities, given the need to provide sufficient isolation space and living support for students who test positive, as well as to prevent students from falling behind in classes.

To address these challenges, we will put in place several measures.

First, Cornell will implement pre-departure testing and enhanced arrival testing for students as we begin the semester at COVID-19 Alert Level Yellow, indicating moderate risk.

Second, we will provide an expanded move-in period to facilitate arrival testing in order to stagger the return of students and better manage isolation needs. 

Third, we will begin the semester on Jan. 24, as planned, but with two weeks of virtual instruction through Feb. 4. This will ensure that anyone who tests positive during break, or shortly before their planned travel, can isolate at home and delay their return to Ithaca while using remote learning to avoid academic disruption. It will also limit academic disruption for students who become positive during travel, or shortly after their return to campus. And it will provide protection against academic disruption for students whose travel may be interrupted, for example, because of the now-frequent airline cancellations.

A message was sent to students further detailing pre-departure and enhanced arrival testing, extended move-in, virtual instruction and other public health requirements for the start of the semester. That message can be found on the COVID-19 website.

Below you will find additional measures pertaining to faculty and staff. Please read the following guidance and requirements carefully, keeping in mind that we may adjust some measures as local and national conditions evolve.

Virtual Instruction

As noted, all classes will be virtual for the first two weeks of the semester, from Jan. 24 through Feb. 4. In-person instruction will resume Feb. 7. Some professional school classes, at the discretion of the dean, may opt for in-person instruction prior to Feb. 7; professional students would need to document proof of negative test results to attend in-person classes during this time.

Events and Activities Before Feb. 7

In-person academic activities, such as lectures and guest speakers may proceed as planned and should include a Zoom option.

Athletic events will continue as scheduled during these two weeks. Dining halls will be open, with grab-and-go meals for the start of the semester. Recreational facilities and libraries will remain open during this time, following current public health guidance on masking and density.

All other in-person student activities will be substantially limited until in-person classes resume Feb. 7. Students have been implored to refrain from social gatherings during the time of arrival through Feb. 6.

Faculty/Staff Testing and On-Campus Work

Any faculty or staff member who tests positive outside of the region, through a home antigen test, or through other non-Cornell or Cayuga Medical Center testing should upload their result to the “Self-Reported Positive” form in the Daily Check.

While campus offices and labs remain open, faculty and staff who can continue to work remotely should do so until Tuesday, Jan. 18, pending other instructions from supervisors.

All faculty and staff should test before returning to on-site work. Please scheduled a test at one of Cornell’s PCR sites through the Daily Check prior to your return to a campus office or facility.

Supplemental testing will remain available for all staff and faculty throughout the semester. Employees are welcome to opt-in to weekly testing as was the case last semester.

Unvaccinated faculty and staff with university exemptions will be required to continue twice weekly testing for the duration of the semester.

Until further notice, all faculty and staff who come to campus must complete the Daily Check.  This is a requirement of the New York State HERO act. As always, please do not come to work if you are ill.

Masking

Along with vaccination and boosters, masks remain a critical part of reducing the spread of the virus. All faculty, staff and students must comply with the university’s masking policy, utilizing high quality masks, worn correctly. Evolving guidance recommends N95/KN95 as the most effective to preventing Omicron. Cloth masks on their own no longer meet Cornell standards for protection. Cornell plans to provide high-quality (e.g., N95, KN95) masks to campus community members who need them.

Boosters

As a reminder: Cornell requires all students, staff, and faculty to get a COVID-19 booster upon eligibility. Please upload your results to the Daily Check if you have not done so.

Town Hall Tomorrow

Please join us at a virtual Town Hall tomorrow where we will review our start-of-semester plans and answer pre-submitted questions:

Friday, Jan. 7, 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.

Qualtrics Survey for submitting questions in advance: https://cornell.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eDNbyNwPYKvZ94O

We acknowledge these past two years have been quite challenging, and all of us are frustrated and tired from the impact of the pandemic. Nonetheless, we must continue to be personally accountable for adhering to all public health guidance and university measures to enable us to continue to provide the kind of residential educational experience that we so value.

We are grateful for your ongoing flexibility and attention to these critical public health measures, and while the Omicron variant has once again changed the trajectory of this virus, we are optimistic that we are on the path to a sustainable and happier future. We wish you all the very best.

Media Contact

Jeffrey Martin