(Photo of Cornell's Arts Quad, courtesy of the university)

ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University held a virtual Town Hall Wednesday to answer the questions of some community members regarding their Fall 2020 return to campus plans

The town hall was hosted by Provost Mike Kotlikoff, Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina, Vice President of Student Affairs Ryan Lombardi, CEO of Cayuga Health System and President of Cayuga Medical Associates Dr. Martin Stallone, and Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa.

Earlier this month, the University announced that they are holding dual instruction with in-person classes starting Sept. 2 and moving to online-only instruction after Nov. 28. The University will also have a late start to their Spring 2021 term, with in-person instruction starting Feb. 9. 

In the detailed plan released to the public, the University noted that they will be following strict guidelines to limit the transmission of COVID-19. 

“This plan is called one with safety barriers,” added Provost Kotlikoff, stressing that it has been in the works for a few months and has been influenced by suggestions of many committees including students, staff, faculty, and community members. 

Kotlikoff added that Cornell plans to have each of their members returning to campus be tested before, and upon, their arrival — in addition to following a mandatory 14-day quarantine.  

“We have a combination of spaces we have identified on campus that is used for quarantining that are separated from other residential areas,” added Lombardi noting a very successful experience enforcing these guidelines this past spring semester. “We have also partnered with local hotels to provide quarantine spaces for students.”

The extensive testing measures will also give the university guidance for adjusting plans, added Kotlikoff.

According to the current plan, aside from being tested before and upon arrival, students will be tested once a week by pool-testing, said Kotlikoff, adding that their goal is to identify any specific locations of transmission such as dorms or classrooms. Students will also be completing a daily questionnaire about possible COVID symptoms and those who are identified as risks will be testing additionally. 

“We are working with Cornell to design and support an iterative testing process that is safe, efficient, and reassuring,” said Dr. Stallone of Cayuga Health. “This is going to help us understand the prevalence of the disease in our community.”

The students will also be required to sign a behavioral contract, stating that they will be abiding the rules that the University will set. This is one of the three steps that Cornell will take to ensure that the students will be following the guidelines. 

“We will have a team of public health ambassadors that will be on campus, who will be serving as an intervention team, encouraging students to practice good behavior and compliance with the guidelines and the policy that are in place,” said Lombardi, stating that the University’s goal is to put forward more preemptive measures rather than reactionary ones. These public health ambassadors will be a team of faculty, staff, students, and health professionals. The University will also launch an extensive messaging and social norms, according to Lombardi. 

“We think peer to peer influence is very important,” said Lombardi, noting that fraternities and sororities will be held to the same standards and guidelines as the rest of the campus.

Classrooms will also be adjusted to ensure social distancing, in addition to having plexiglass between the faculty member and the students, and requiring masks. 

“We polled our faculty about who would be comfortable to teach in a classroom and who would not,” said Kotlikoff. “A third of our faculty stated that they were looking forward to teaching in a classroom, a third of faculty to said they are open to teaching if they deem the conditions safe, and a third said they are not interested in teaching in person.”

Adding that the decision to allow the faculty to opt-out from teaching in person was made early on, Kotlikoff said that faculty who chose to teach online are required to offer a quality online experience with the proper resources in place. If a faculty member were to test positive, another faculty member would substitute for them, added Kotlikoff. 

Aside from adjusting the experiences of their community members, Cornell also had to make adjustments for visitors.

There will be no in-person campus tours, said Malina, adding that travel will be restricted. It was also stressed that only students will be allowed inside of the residential halls during move-in, even though they may be accompanied to campus by parents or guardians. 

Community members will be invited to hold students accountable, added Malina, sharing those community guidelines will be released to the public soon. Malina encouraged the community to hold a conversation, from a safe distance, with students that seem to be making unsafe decisions. 

Emphasizing that the community should refrain from calling the police department for non-violent crimes, Lombardi added that an online portal will be available to the community to post suggestions and concerns. 

The health services in Ithaca are prepared for the return of students, said Dr. Stallone, continuing that they have members of their team who worked in New York City COVID-19 wards and are properly trained in handling such situations.

“We have established a surge plan,” added Dr. Stallone. “We have been assured that we would receive people and resources if we needed.”

The group also addressed that they find comfort in the low numbers that Tompkins County has been experiencing. Public Health Director Frank Kruppa said that this is mostly due to the successful tracing of cases. 

“Contact tracing and disease investigation is core and our main responsibility,” said Kruppa. “Cornell folks are being trained so that they can support us if needed.”

With all the factors considered, administrators are confident that they can implement plans successfully and control the transmission of the disease.

“We are highly influenced by the fact that Ithaca has certain unique characteristics, such as half of our students living off-campus, and above 50% of those students have said that they plan to come back and occupy their leases,” said Kotlikoff. 

Lombardi also added that he has had similar conversations with students and that the University feels more comfortable following a hybrid model with strict guidelines rather than online learning with students who choose to return to Ithaca not following any specific requirements. 

The health officials on the Town Hall stressed that they have been working with Cornell University, as well as Ithaca College, and believe that both institutions will ensure the community’s safety. 

“We are not in a situation where we have options for zero risks,” said Kotlikoff supporting Lombardi’s point and stating that the University would like to avoid having a closed campus.

“Let me say unequivocally that we absolutely recognize the responsibility to mitigate the spread of the virus in the area,” said Malina. “What we are putting forward here, as much as possible, is to prevent any spread.” 

You can read President Pollack’s public message regarding the new visa guidelines here and find more information about Cornell University’s guidelines and plan here