Additional information to address faculty concerns

Aug. 27, 2021

Dear Cornell Faculty,

Thank you for all the work that you have done in preparing for the start of the academic year. The pandemic has had a profound impact on all of our daily lives and our sense of well-being, and it is therefore entirely understandable that many within our community may feel uncertain about health and safety and the risks associated with interacting with one another in person, particularly as we confront the more infectious Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2. As our university message today indicates, we are now experiencing a higher than expected number of cases among students associated with informal social events and activities. We write now to describe how this increase affects in-person instruction, and to outline some important changes that we have made in response to faculty concerns.

From the beginning of the pandemic, we have followed the science and made evidence-based decisions about the operations and policies we would put in place to protect our community. Where additional safety measures could be achieved, we have implemented them even if they have gone beyond CDC guidelines. Our approach has been, and continues to be, prioritizing the health of our community, while endeavoring to provide the best residential instruction experience for our students, and the most productive academic environment for our faculty. Below we outline important measures that have been taken to protect the health of faculty, students, staff and our families and friends, as we begin in-person instruction for the fall semester. Importantly, however, as demonstrated by our recent move to COVID-19 Alert Level Yellow, we will continue to respond to new information in ways that prioritize the safety of our community.

Vaccination rates are high

The single most important protection against serious illness associated with COVID-19 is being fully vaccinated. In April 2021, we announced that all students (unless they have an approved medical or religion exemption) would be required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to maintain an enrolled status during the fall semester. The vast majority of students are starting the semester fully vaccinated; students who were unable to get an FDA- or WHO-approved or authorized vaccine prior to arriving in Ithaca were vaccinated upon arrival. A few unvaccinated students have requested medical or religious exemptions, but we anticipate that over 99% of our student body will soon be vaccinated against COVID-19. Similarly, an overwhelming percentage of faculty and staff are also vaccinated. This is an enormous achievement and creates conditions on campus unlike almost any other community, and is far above the vaccination rate of our surrounding county (68%) and New York state (58%). While current vaccines confer somewhat less protection against infection with the Delta variant, and infections among vaccinated individuals do occur, these breakthrough infections are usually associated with close interactions between unmasked individuals and, most importantly, these breakthrough cases are overwhelmingly mild: vaccines are extraordinarily effective in preventing serious disease.


Perhaps our most successful strategy in keeping infection rates low since the beginning of the pandemic has been our capability to do intensive, rapid turnaround, surveillance testing to quickly isolate any infected individual and prevent spread within our community, following this up with contact tracing and extensive testing of identified contacts and others who are likely to have interacted closely with infected individuals. All unvaccinated or partially vaccinated students have been tested upon arrival and are then tested twice each week. Importantly, and beyond CDC, NYS or other guidelines, all fully vaccinated undergraduate students and fully vaccinated professional students in CVM/Law/Johnson/AAP/ILR are also required to be tested once each week. This testing exceeds almost all of our peers. Of course, a consequence of an intensive test/isolate surveillance strategy is that we identify and highlight all infections, including many that would never otherwise be recognized and counted. We anticipate the next few weeks to result in the highest positive case counts of the semester as students return to campus from areas of higher COVID-19 prevalence. Our recent message and status change highlights our commitment to continue to do what is necessary to blunt the spread of infection, including increasing testing frequency even among fully vaccinated individuals.

Masking and PPE

Wearing a mask is highly effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. In addition to vaccination and testing, the third essential component of our public health guidance is the requirement for all members of the Cornell community to wear masks indoors under most circumstances. As announced today, we are now mandating mask wearing indoors and outdoors while on campus. Since the start of the pandemic, Cornell has provided masks to all employees who need them. Units can order masks by visiting the e-SHOP. In addition, 1,000 face shields have been distributed to college A/V teams.

While N95 respirators are indicated for healthcare workers, medical first responders and those performing limited high-risk tasks, they can be ordered via e-SHOP for “voluntary use” by faculty and staff with particular concerns to be accommodated, using guidance provided by OSHA and Cornell EHS (respiratory protection). Similarly, disinfectant materials will also be distributed and available outside classrooms as of Monday.

The university has provided additional masking guidance for eating and drinking while indoors, as well as mask and food and beverage restrictions at certain meetings or events:

Classroom safety

In-person teaching, research and engagement is at the heart of what we do as educators at Cornell and is of vital importance to our students. In making the decision to hold in-person classes this semester, we weighed numerous factors, all driven by careful modeling of transmission characteristics of the Delta variant. Importantly, the comprehensive process in place for responding to faculty concerns about their own or a family member’s underlying health conditions has enabled us to identify the most appropriate solution based on the facts of each case, including in some instances allowing faculty to teach remotely when doing so best serves both faculty and student interests. Please contact the Medical Leaves Administration office (MLA) to discuss disability-related workplace accommodations.

We emphasize, however, that teaching students, 99% of whom are fully vaccinated, from a reasonable distance, while masked and regularly tested presents far less risk than many everyday activities outside of the university community, like going to the grocery store, getting your hair cut, or taking a child to a group activity. Each of these measures (masks, vaccination, physical distance and testing) offers protection. Together, they multiply to provide protection far surpassing the safety of many environments outside the university.

First, properly worn surgical masks both significantly reduce an infectious person’s chance of infecting others and reduce the exposed person’s chance of becoming infected. When both wear a mask, the protection is compounded (Howard, et. al.).

Second, vaccination further protects instructors: Recent studies indicate that vaccination reduces an infected student’s ability to transmit by roughly 50% (Harris, et. al.), and reduces the instructor’s risk of being infected by approximately 66% (Fowlkes, et. al.). At these estimated levels of individual protection, vaccines and masks together combine to reduce infections by more than 99%.

Third, regular testing, vaccination and contact tracing together will identify infected individuals quickly keeping prevalence in our classrooms very low.

These factors and others were carefully considered in a modeling effort undertaken by the Cornell COVID-19 Modeling Team over the summer to assess the risk of in-person instruction. The modeling provided guidance for developing effective transmission mitigation strategies and found the implemented strategy of masking, vaccination and testing to be extremely effective. This effort continues, incorporating data from our own environment and from rapid advances in the scientific literature.

Despite some differences (denser classes but vaccinated students), students and instructors face a risk of in-class virus transmission comparable to or lower than what they encountered over the last academic year. During that period, there were no documented cases of in-class transmission and no faculty infections related to classroom student contacts. Our testing throughout last year indicated that in all cases, transmission occurred not in classroom settings where students and faculty are masked, but associated with other social activities where masking compliance was much less rigorous.

Additional insights from this modeling can be found in the links below. A modeling report incorporating recent data will be made available on the COVID-19 Response website in the coming weeks.

Indoor air quality

Similar to last year, the university continues to operate ventilation systems with increased fresh air intake and extended flush out periods at the beginning and end of workdays. The university also continues to maintain enhanced filtration within compatible air systems. Every university building has specific heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that have undergone building-by-building condition review and comply with all international and U.S. codes and standards. More rooms are being used this semester than previously simply because more in-person classes are being taught and our modeling of risk fully incorporated this broader diversity in rooms of instruction. Faculty may use conference rooms or even conduct office hours and advising sessions by Zoom if they choose, but we urge faculty to have as much in person (but distanced) interaction with students as possible.

Academic resources

As we receive questions that could impact many members of our community, we have been adding that information to the university’s COVID-19 Response website. Specific to faculty, there are several FAQs and resources posted to the Academic Policies, Instruction and Resources webpage. If you have questions that are not answered here, but would be good to include, please contact Lisa Nishii at

Going forward

One of the hallmarks of our program last year was frequent assessment of how things were faring on campus and our ability to adapt to the changing environment. This served us well as we made significant improvements to our COVID-19 response over time. We are committed to this same level of self-scrutiny this year as well. Today’s announcement of Cornell’s move to COVID-19 Alert Level Yellow, and attendant health regulations is an example of our commitment to use our data to respond quickly to changing conditions.

We will hold another faculty town hall webinar on Wednesday, Sept. 1 from 11 a.m. to noon. This will provide an additional opportunity to answer your questions about planning and safeguards for the fall semester. Please look for additional details to follow.

Again, thank you for your commitment to educating our students during a period of incredible stress for everyone. The efforts of faculty during this crisis have been inspiring and we are constantly reminded of the positive impact of these efforts on our students. As we walk the campus and experience the excitement of students who are finally returning to the classroom, we look forward to your continued support and confidence.


Michael Kotlikoff

Lisa Nishii
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education