ITHACA, N.Y. — As the COVID-19 pandemic carries on into its sixth month, and with the beginning of the fall semester just on the horizon, concerns have been growing about how exactly Cornell University — which attracts roughly 30,000 students, staff and faculty to the Tompkins County-area each year — will be able to bring those people back safely.
The Ithaca Voice spoke with President Martha Pollack on Friday afternoon about some of the finer points of the university’s reopening plan. The discussion included the school’s testing program, student behavior, relations between residents and students and why last week’s sudden change to the proposed quarantine procedure caught so many off-guard.
Pollack offered more specifics about the consequences of student non-compliance with the safety regulations included in the Cornell Compact, which could result in expulsion, and offered more clarity on what metrics could change the university’s approach to reopening.
The Tompkins County Health Department also reiterated on Friday that they are working closely with Cornell’s leadership on their plan and will continue to do so.
“The Health Department takes our responsibilities to manage
Kruppa also stressed the importance of the school’s testing program and behavioral compact.
“Cornell’s commitment to their testing program and holding accountability to their behavioral compact are vital for keeping our community healthy. This next month is going to be critical and all Tompkins County residents, including students, need to be vigilant and follow public health guidance,” added Kruppa.
Read the full Q&A, edited for clarity, below:
- What has the community response been like on the university’s end? What are the concerns you are hearing most?
- There has been significant concern in the Ithaca and Tompkins community about students returning, was not bringing students back ever a consideration?
- Johns Hopkins University announced today that they will conduct their fall semester entirely online. They are a school of similar size, population-wise, and similar resources, with an endowment of just under $7 billion. What makes Cornell’s setting different enough that your administration feels comfortable taking this risk?
- The County and city told us that they were both surprised by the announcement that students would be on their own to find a place to quarantine, when did it become clear to the university that that portion of the plan might not be feasible?
- This is an obviously an unprecedented moment with a lot of variables, but at the same time, college student behavior is fairly predictable, how confident are you that the student body will rise to meet the moment and what makes the university so confident that the behavior compact will be enough of a deterrent?
- It hasn’t only been community concern, there has been internal pushback from faculty, staff, and students as well. What has the university done to address these concerns?
- What is the tipping point? What would the university need to see happen in order for your administration to say, “that’s it.” and shut it down.
- What metrics are you paying attention to nationally in advance of the semester?
- At the tail end of the spring semester, as it became clear that the virus was going to be a problem locally, we saw an alarming rise in complaints of racist and menacing behavior, not necessarily towards Cornell students, but towards Asian people generally — I think it would be safe to guess that people locally are even more on edge than they were in March or April. What steps is the university taking to put the minds of locals at ease and to help avoid this sort of adversarial relationship between residents and students?
The Ithaca Voice: What has the community response been like on the university’s end? What are the concerns you are hearing most?
President Pollack: The community response is what you would expect. People are concerned about their health and they want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect their health.
IV: We’ve heard a lot of concern in the Ithaca and Tompkins community about students returning, was not bringing students back ever a consideration?
PP: This decision has absolutely not been made hastily. In fact, we have been working on this decision for months now. We started planning for this and investigating and doing studies early in the pandemic. We put together planning groups. We put together people doing analysis. We’ve been scouring the literature. We’ve put all of that material online. People can go and read the epidemiological studies and they can read what our planning groups have recommended. And once those recommendations came in and we announced our plans in late June or early July, we’ve continued to do the analysis. We’ve updated our analysis, and we’ve run town halls for our faculty and staff and students and the community. So honestly, this has not been a hasty decision and we considered all options in the end.
In the end, I really feel that as a university, we need to go with what the science tells us. I feel very strongly that my primary responsibility here is safeguarding the health and well-being of our students, our faculty and our staff and the broader Ithaca community and all of the science, the science that we did, the science we updated and the reports we’re seeing elsewhere now lead to the conclusion — it is counterintuitive — but they lead to the conclusion that because we’re going to have students coming back to campus, to Ithaca campus anyway, we know that they’re here.
Our ability to influence their behavior and most notably our ability to ensure that they participate in our testing program are very rigorous. The testing program is much, much, much stronger if they’re enrolled and on campus. And that’s what protects the community, because the fewer infections we have, the more infections we catch early that might otherwise go undetected. The earlier we put people into isolation, the more we can do contact tracing along with Tompkins County, which is a great partner and very supportive of this effort and the more we can safeguard the community.
IV: Johns Hopkins University announced today that they will conduct their fall semester entirely online. They are a school of similar size, population-wise, and similar resources, with an endowment of just under $7 billion. What makes Cornell’s setting different enough that your administration feels comfortable taking this calculated risk?
PP: A few things. Number one, and I want to say this as clearly as I can: this decision was not made on the basis of finances. If I thought that it would be safer for our community to not open, that’s what I would do. I don’t know how to say that more strongly.
Secondly, when you say calculated risk, it’s all a calculated risk, right? So we take a risk if we reopen, but we take a risk if we go online. And our analysis, which doesn’t apply everywhere, was carefully done to model what we know about the community as it applies to us now. Baltimore is different from Ithaca. I don’t actually know how many students live on-campus and off-campus at Hopkins. We’ve invested millions in setting up a very robust testing facility at the vet school in collaboration with Cayuga Health System so that we will be able to do this very frequent surveillance testing. So, these results say that, by any prediction, it will be safer to be open and have the ability to be responsible for testing and having students signing on to the behavioral contract even if they’re living off-campus. The science predicts that will be safer than if we don’t and they come back and we don’t have that authority.
IV: The County and city told us that they were both surprised by the announcement that students would be on their own to find a place to quarantine, when did it become clear to the university that that portion of the plan might not be feasible?
PP: Our original plan was to provide supportive quarantine. By supportive, I mean space and meals and daily health check-ins and so on, for every student who was coming from one of the states on Governor Cuomo quarantine list. As the quarantine list grew and went up to 34 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, it became clear that we didn’t have enough space to put these students. We would have ended up putting them in hotel rooms as far away as Syracuse and Binghamton, and that was not safe. I wasn’t going to put 17-year-olds away from home for the first time in a hotel room hours away. So we had to back off of that.
And what we are now doing is urging students from the quarantine list, and there’s been a lot of confusion about this, we’re urging them to remain at home and begin their semester online until they’re safe to come off the list. That said, we know there are some students whose home circumstances just aren’t conducive to engaging in a Cornell education. And so they were able –– I think it closed last night –– to apply for an exception to quarantine on campus under our supervision. So, sort of like what we had originally planned.
Otherwise, we’re discouraging students from the quarantine states to return. Now, we know that there are some students who may have family in New York State somewhere and they’re going to go live in the family’s house for 14 days. I mean, I can’t prohibit that, but in general, we are discouraging students (from doing that.)
All students when they come back, if they’re coming from one of the quarantine states, must attest that they’ve abided by the New York state rules and that they filled out the New York State entry paperwork and then they go right into our virus testing program.
Unfortunately in, as it were, the fog of war — it’s our fault we dropped the ball. We hadn’t clearly communicated the change of plans with the Tompkins County Health Department. We have now spoken with them and we are back in a very good situation and really, really value their partnership.
IV: I don’t think it’s unfair that the community is seeing that an early component of this plan didn’t really unfold well and are concerned.
PP: That’s right. And the virus is evolving. And we have said all along that as things evolve, our plans may change.
Actually, I think it would be problematic if we were not willing to evolve our plan. For example, with all the data we will be collecting through this massive testing, we’re going to be able to monitor and see what’s going on and if it looks like we need to adjust, if we need, for example, to make testing even more frequent, if we need to have even a smaller cap on the classes that we only offer online even I mean, I hope it doesn’t get to this, but if it got to the point where we felt like we needed to shut down the campus, we would. Being flexible is what you need to do when you have all this uncertainty. What you should worry about is if you’re overly rigid.
IV: This is an obviously an unprecedented moment with a lot of variables, but at the same time, college student behavior is fairly predictable, how confident are you that the student body will rise to meet the moment and what makes the university so confident that the behavior compact will be enough of a deterrent?
PP: Let me start by sort of repeating the underlying logic of reopening: Students are coming back to Ithaca. They’re here even if they’re online … they’re adults. They have leases. I can’t tell them not to come to their leases. So when you do the modeling, when you try to say what’s the better choice from a public health perspective –– if my students are going to behave in ways that aren’t consistent with public health, public health practices — that’s going to happen whether we’re online or in person.
So the first thing to say is that when you do the modeling, if you’re in person, you have more ability to monitor and to implement sanctions when students don’t abide by what we’re calling the Cornell Compact. So that’s the first thing I just want to be clear about because that’s really important. That’s the key point when our students are signing onto this compact we are engaging students in the process.
We have a student ambassador program and they are being trained in how to help students. Awareness is really important. We are launching a really major public health awareness campaign, but we also are serious about having sanctions for misbehavior, anything that goes from loss of access to campus buildings to deactivation of your net I.D. all the way up to suspension and expulsion. So we are going to do our best first by education and awareness and then as needed through the imposition of sanctions to have students behave well. If students don’t behave, they’ll leave. But I want to go back to that first point, A, we’re going to have a really strong virus testing program, so if there is misbehavior but the students are enrolled and we can have them in this virus testing program, catch them, test them early. And B, students are coming back no matter what.
IV: It hasn’t only been community concern, there has been internal pushback from faculty, staff, and students as well. What has the university done to address these concerns?
PP: It’s all about communication. We’ve been having weekly town halls with our faculty. We’ve been having town halls with our staff, as I say, also with the community. And I think there was, first of all, there was miscommunication about what the change had been. So we needed to explain what the change is. We needed to explain that we are actually strongly discouraging students from coming back if they come from those (states on the governor’s list). Basically, we’ve just tried to be as transparent and communicate as much as we possibly can.
IV: What is the tipping point? What would the university need to see happen in order for your administration to say, “that’s it.” and shut it down?
PP: We are working on a formal scientific set of criteria for that. Basically, if we believe that we were losing epidemiological control, that is –– we could no longer control the number of infections –– that would be the tipping point. And just as we have done all along, we are relying on the science to formalize that. But I should say that we are also relying on the science not just to develop a sort of trigger point for shut down, but instead, let me call them escalation points. Points where we would do the sorts of things I said earlier –– step up the number of tests, maybe lower the size of classes that were online, maybe crack down further on behavior, have even smaller number limits on gathering’s and so on. We’re going to have escalation points leading up to a tipping point.
IV: What metrics are you paying attention to nationally in advance of the semester?
PP: Absolutely. All the modeling we’ve done, we’ve been updating throughout the summer, as national statistics have changed. I’ll give you a very clear example which may be helpful –– by conforming to our original plan, of students being tested once a week: we’ve decided that it’s much safer to have them tested twice a week.
IV: At the tail end of the spring semester, as it became clear that the virus was going to be a problem locally, we saw an alarming rise in complaints of racist and menacing behavior, not necessarily towards Cornell students, but towards Asian people generally — I think it would be safe to guess that people locally are even more on edge than they were in March or April. What steps is the university taking to put the minds of locals at ease and to help avoid this sort of adversarial relationship between residents and students?
PP: Having an environment that is inclusive and welcoming and appropriately diverse has always been one of my priorities since I started as president. With the killing of George Floyd, of course, the focus has been on the experiences of Black students. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve turned away from the experiences of and the attitudes towards all of our students. And I think it’s just part of the broader Cornell ethos to address these issues head-on and tackle them head-on. We have a number of staff who work in student life and elsewhere whose focus this is. I have on my senior leadership team, someone who focuses on this. And it will continue to be central to everything we do.