Fall semester updates and reminders

Sept. 22, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

Now that we are three weeks into the semester, I am writing with some updates and reminders related to health and safety, student equity and instruction.

Health and Safety

First, I want to personally thank all of you for your efforts to make this semester so impactful for our students. As you know, the university moved back to COVID-19 Alert Level Green last Wednesday. Our on campus prevalence is extraordinarily low at this time, and we are happy to report that we have not seen any evidence of classroom-based transmission of the virus, thanks to the hard work of many people across campus to prepare classrooms for in-person instruction, combined with diligent adherence to face coverings and physical distancing by faculty and students. The processes we have put into place are greatly appreciated by our colleagues at the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) who recognize the thought and commitment our community is making to the safety of our community. This is great news!

Nevertheless, we must continue to pursue the most effective public safety procedures, and additional conversations with TCHD and with instructors about contact tracing have highlighted the need to strengthen three precautionary measures already in place:

  1. Face coverings: Early on in planning for the Fall 2020 semester, faculty expressed a desire to wear face shields instead of masks so that students could more easily see their faces. At the time, it seemed that face shields could be an appropriate alternative to face masks. Guidance has continued to evolve, however, and emerging consensus now is that face shields are suboptimal to masks.

    Although Cornell’s practice of extra distancing between instructors and the first row of students may compensate for this difference, TCHD recently confirmed that they would be more likely to identify instructors who wear a face shield (instead of a mask) as “close contacts” in determining risk of exposure when a positive case is found.

    If you are currently using a face shield but can tolerate a face mask, you are strongly urged to switch. Masks with clear windows can be used. Feedback from students and instructors indicate that surgical masks provide better audio quality than cloth masks. You can order masks through the university’s Critical Supply Storeroom. If you need assistance, please contact Tammy Johnson.

  2. Disinfecting classroom surfaces: Every classroom is equipped with cleaning supplies. At the end of class please remind your students to wipe their seats and writing surfaces. Also invite them to arrive a few minutes early if they would like to clean before class too. The inventory of cleaning supplies is routinely checked; however, you can also request more cleaning supplies by submitting a maintenance request.

  3. Assigned seating: Please keep an up-to-date record of the seats to which students have been assigned in your classroom in case this information is needed to facilitate contact tracing.

Student Equity

  1. Time zones: Students in time zones that differ significantly from Ithaca’s may have difficulty participating in synchronous activities. Faculty cannot expect or require a student to participate regularly in a course-related activity or take an exam before 8 a.m. or after 10:30 p.m. in their local time zone. Please make sure that asynchronous students have access to all course activities and materials and have ways to engage in the classroom community. These tips for teaching international students provide helpful guidance for managing across time zones.

  2. In-person vs online exams: Different from the Spring 2020 semester, instructors are not required to provide a 24-hour window for exams taken online. In fact, given what we learned from the spring, instructors are advised not to do so. For timed exams, give the exam at the same time for in-person and remote students, with an alternative exam time as needed to accommodate students who are in time zones that differ significantly from Ithaca’s. In these cases, instructors might want to administer exams with different questions to address concerns about academic integrity.


  1. Study groups: Students may be finding it especially challenging to locate other students with whom they can study. Please encourage your students (see suggested text) to use the Learning Strategies Center’s tool to help match study partners and their tips for studying together effectively. You can find out more on the Studying Together webpage.

  2. Mini-studio spaces for teaching: Cornell has set up 14 studios across campus where you can teach online courses or record course materials. See the locations and how to book them.

  3. Preparing for the Spring 2021 semester: Watch for a survey coming soon to ask faculty about their teaching experiences thus far to inform preparations for the spring semester, including classroom A/V and instructional support. Please respond promptly so your experiences can be considered.

Thank you, again, for all of your hard work in making this semester possible. We know there have been hiccups along the way. We appreciate your perseverance and patience as we continue to work through them.


Lisa Nishii
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education