Underlying rationale for start-of-semester plans

Jan. 11, 2022

Dear Cornell community,

Last week, we wrote to you laying out our approach to the upcoming semester, noting that the conditions of the pandemic continue to change -- and so, too, must Cornell. Our plan recognizes that the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant makes full containment impossible, and that we must develop strategies that enable us to learn to live with the virus, focusing on minimizing serious illness while advancing our mission of teaching, research, and engagement.

Last week’s message emphasized what we will do to accomplish those goals. Today, I want to focus on why we are taking these particular steps.

Why are pre-departure tests for students required?
With the high number of cases of Omicron nationally, and consistent with what we are observing at other universities that have already started their semesters, we project that if we do not require pre-departure testing, thousands of students could potentially arrive on campus infected with COVID-19, overwhelming our capacity for isolation space and support. That is why it is essential that every student take a COVID-19 test before departing for Ithaca or NYC (for Cornell Tech students) and, if they test positive, delay their departure for at least five days.

Why are the first two weeks of classes online?
As noted, we project that a large number of students may need to delay their arrival to campus, and we also project that even with pre-departure testing many students will end up positive on or shortly after arriving on campus because of exposure during travel, for example. This could mean that hundreds and possibly even thousands of students would be unable to attend class in person during the first week or two. That number could be further increased by students whose travel is affected by flight cancellations, which are so common at present. By holding classes online for two weeks, we can minimize academic disruption for our students, ensuring that everyone who is well enough to participate can receive the same instruction prior to the start of in-person classes.

Will face-to-face classes really start after two weeks?
Yes, it is fully our intention to begin in-person classes on Feb. 7. If everyone does their part, by doing pre-departure testing and delaying their return if needed; by doing enhanced arrival testing and isolating if needed; and by observing other public health protocols such as wearing high-quality masks, then we should have sufficient isolation capacity after Feb. 7 for positive cases that occur later. Of course, this pandemic has never been entirely predictable, and it is always possible that sometime later in the semester circumstances will significantly change. If so, we will need to adjust. But we very much want and will do everything we can to preserve an in-person semester for our students.

Why will asymptomatic students be isolated?
Isolation of all positive COVID-19 cases is mandatory under New York state regulations. Beyond that, it is important that we take steps to limit the spread of infection, even if a large number of infections is inevitable; and one way to do that is by isolating people who are infected, including people who are asymptomatic. Remember: you can transmit the virus even if you do not have symptoms. In fact, our modeling shows that at least early in the semester, a failure to identify and isolate cases, including asymptomatic ones, will likely lead to spread with an even greater number of symptomatic infections than we would have otherwise seen. This would stress and potentially overwhelm our isolation capacity – even with our articulated approach to isolating in place for many students – and it would further disrupt academics, because even a mildly symptomatic case can produce illness sufficient to interfere with academic work. Additionally, we have members of our campus community who are older (e.g., faculty and staff) and/or have an underlying condition and/or are either themselves immunocompromised or live with someone who is immunocompromised. Minimizing the spread of COVID-19 is important for helping to protect those who are at higher risk.

Why are we changing the on-campus masking expectation to higher-quality masks? Why is food service on the Ithaca campus limited to grab-and-go until Feb. 7? Why are many student activities limited during that period? And why aren’t athletics events being cancelled? Why aren’t we closing recreational facilities and libraries? Etc.
All of these decisions seek to balance our two stated goals: (1) limiting infection as much as possible to protect community health and to avoid over-stressing isolation capacity and our health care systems (both within Cornell and in the greater Ithaca community); and (2) providing an in-person, world-class educational experience for our students, while also caring for their overall well-being. The evidence is clear that higher-quality masks—ATSM medical masks, N95s, KN95s, and KF94s—do a significantly better job of limiting the spread of infection than do other masks. Similarly, while there might be a marginal reduction in infection transmission if we were to close all recreational facilities or libraries for the first two weeks of the semester, that is outweighed by the benefit to student wellbeing of keeping them open, with appropriate masking requirements, and thereby providing students with an outlet for physical activity when it is generally too cold in Ithaca for outdoor exercise and with places to study on campus. While there are no perfect solutions, there are important trade-offs that underlie each of these decisions.

Why are we switching to antigen testing in some cases for students, when these tests are less sensitive than PCR tests?
Antigen-based testing, while somewhat less sensitive than PCR, has the advantage of speed – it shortens the time to detect and notify a positive from days to minutes. Particularly for pre-departure testing, where it is important that tests be administered as close to the time of departure as possible, our modeling shows that the elimination of possible virus transmission by rapid response outweighs the increased sensitivity of PCR. The same thing is true for arrival testing, when the use of antigen tests allows rapid isolation for students in our dorms. Arriving off-campus students will be tested by PCR, and much of our surveillance and supplemental testing will be PCR-based. For all of these testing modalities, multiple tests compensate for the loss of sensitivity of a single test.

We look forward to our employees returning to campus next week: effective Tuesday, Jan. 18 (Jan. 24 for Cornell Tech), employees should return to their pre-December work arrangements. We also look forward to welcoming our students, as they arrive in a staggered fashion over the coming weeks.

Throughout the pandemic, we have demonstrated a remarkable resiliency, coming together as needed to meet and overcome significant challenges. I am confident that we can do so once again.


Martha E. Pollack