Message to Graduate Students: Plans to reactivate Ithaca campus for fall semester

July 2, 2020

Dear Graduate Students:

I’m writing to share additional information, following President Pollack’s 6/30/20 announcement of plans for the upcoming academic year, including some on-campus instruction beginning in early September. Please take seriously President Pollack’s guidance that “it will be critically important for each of us to adjust our individual behavior. … I am asking all of our returning Cornell community to adopt a culture of shared responsibility for our safety and well-being.”

Returning to Ithaca. If you have not yet returned to the Ithaca area but intend to do so, please be mindful of your own health and the health of others when planning your return to the local community. Be sure to review and abide by the New York State COVID-19 Travel Advisory which imposes local quarantine requirements on travelers from states/regions with high infection rates. Soon Cornell will issue detailed guidance regarding personal travel and other expectations for return to and living in the local campus area. Watch for, and follow, that guidance.

Teaching modalities. As President Pollack noted, Cornell will offer “hybrid teaching, with some classes online and some in-person.” If you will be enrolling in courses, more information will be provided about the modality of each class before you need to finalize your course selections for the fall semester. You’ll receive additional information when it is time to enroll in Fall 2020 courses. At that point, if you have any questions about which courses are appropriate for you academically or in a certain modality, contact your degree program for guidance.

Teaching assistant modalities. If you anticipate being appointed as a teaching assistant for a Fall ’20 course and you are curious about what modality the course will take (online, or a combination of in-person and remote), contact the supervisor for your TA duties to inquire what the anticipated plans are for that course. Many courses will be fully online. As President Pollack noted, behavioral modifications will be made in all in-person courses, including students and faculty wearing masks (or face shields), students sitting in assigned seats that are appropriately distanced, reduced classroom capacity, and in-person enrollment caps. For some in-person courses, student cohorts will take turns participating remotely versus in-person, to de-densify the campus.

Research activities. If you are a research degree student, keep in mind that if you can continue to work effectively on all or portions of your research activity while remote, you should continue to do so. If you are seeking to be approved to resume on-campus research activity, contact your faculty advisor or research supervisor so they can begin the process of requesting approval from their department and college for your return to on-campus research. If you are approved to conduct on-campus research activity, be sure to first complete the online training EHS 2019: Return to Campus Health and Safety COVID-19 (this can be completed at any time), complete the Daily Check each day before coming onto campus, and wear a cloth face covering/mask when inside campus buildings and maintain physical distancing.

Accommodations for students with personal health concerns. Graduate students concerned about their own health related to potentially returning to on-campus activities and wishing to seek accommodations should register through Student Disability Services (SDS); additional details are in this chart. The process is designed to be straight-forward and respectful of student privacy. I have reminded faculty that they should NOT discuss medical issues with students and should refer students to SDS if they express concerns about their personal health, without probing for any details. Zebadiah Hall, director of SDS, has provided assurance that “SDS takes a student’s social, environmental, emotional, and biological context into account when making determinations about accommodations. In fact, SDS strives to engage with students in a way that is empowering and that discusses the needs for support within the context of the students’ lived experience. SDS acknowledges that for many students, this experience may include painful instances, or daily reminders, of ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. SDS counselors do not share with faculty members, staff, or others, any information that a student does not wish to share.”

Options for students with general concerns about in-person activities. I understand that you may have concerns about returning to campus for a variety of reasons (e.g., concerns about a household member). Speak with your committee chair, assistantship supervisor, and DGS to explore other options for fulfilling your research, scholarship, and assistantship responsibilities and continuing to make academic progress. Faculty have been instructed that if a graduate student asks for help identifying options because they have concerns, faculty should not probe for personal details about the student or their household members. Rather, faculty should acknowledge the student’s general concern about returning to campus, and work with them to identify options. The chart provides examples of what options might look like, such as conducting assistantship duties at different off-peak shift times, pivoting research activities away from lab-based to computation-based, teaching remotely, or otherwise revising assistantship duties. Faculty have also been reminded that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating additional stress for many of our students, and should be aware of this context as an additional compounding factor when identifying potential options.

I have encouraged faculty and graduate fields to be creative and accommodating when exploring possible options with students, allowing remote work and learning whenever possible, and avoiding probing for any personal details about a student or their household members. If a graduate student and faculty advisor and DGS are not able to reach agreement regarding possible options to address their concerns and enable the student to continue to make academic progress or fulfill their assistantship responsibilities, the protocol in the chart should be followed to bring in others to assist in finding a solution, such as the department chair, the college dean’s office, or Jan Allen for the Graduate School as outlined. We have emphasized that a key guiding principle is to strive to foster graduate students’ abilities to complete their degrees.

Consult the university and Graduate School COVID-19 update pages for the most current information about Cornell’s status and plans, FAQs, and other useful resources.

We look forward to Cornell’s continued reactivation and to taking the next steps towards a safe and productive fall semester. There will most certainly be challenges in the coming year. I am confident that, striving together, we will rise to meet them.

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Dean of the Graduate School

Additional pandemic information for the Cornell Community: