In the face of the new COVID-19 variant (Omicron) and a precipitous rise in the number of infections on college campuses across the country in the weeks following Thanksgiving, administrators found themselves confronted with having to, once again, put measures into place aimed at limiting COVID-19 transmission on their campuses and in their communities.
Numerous schools around the country declared that students had to finish their semesters remotely. Many are extending mask mandates and requiring vaccine booster shots in order to return to campus. They’re limiting social gatherings and canceling sporting events as well, which greatly inhibits campus life. This comes at a time when almost every academic institution in America was starting (or at least hoping) to relax safety measures and begin returning to normalcy.
Cornell University’s Response
Earlier this month, after hundreds of Cornell University students tested positive within just a few days, University President Martha E. Pollack posted a statement on the University’s website in which she wrote, “…our surveillance testing has continued to identify the rapid spread of COVID-19 among our student population. While faculty and staff case numbers currently remain low, just last evening our COVID-19 testing lab team identified evidence of the highly contagious Omicron variant in a significant number of Monday’s positive student samples. As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, the University is moving to Alert Level Red (indicating a high risk and significant increase of spread from the campus to the greater community at a time of limited quarantine, isolation, and/or local hospital capacity) and announcing a number of immediate measures.”
Perhaps the most significant of those measures directed that, “All final exams will move to an online format as of noon Tuesday, December 14. Exams that have already been moved to an online format will proceed as scheduled… Some exams still scheduled to be in person may be able to switch immediately to an online modality; others may need to be rescheduled to give faculty time to pivot.”
Additional measures involved the cancellation of the December 18th recognition ceremony for December graduates, as well as all University activities involving undergraduates, including social gatherings, athletics competitions, winter celebrations, and all University-sponsored events. University libraries were closed as well. And students using Cornell dining facilities were strongly encouraged to ‘grab-and-go’ or use social distancing if eating near others.
Prior to the recent surge in cases, vaccinated students did not have to wear masks or practice social distancing outdoors. Now, everyone at the Ithaca campus has to wear masks indoors and outdoors when physical distancing is not possible.
Visitors and guests are no longer allowed on campus. An exception was made, however, for those picking up students for break. But those doing so were asked to ‘remain continuously masked’ while on campus.
In a letter to the greater Ithaca community, President Pollack wrote, “It is obviously extremely dispiriting to have to take these steps … However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff, and students.”
A message which appeared recently on my Yahoo news feed read, ‘I’m a student at Cornell University. As of Friday, 1,605 of my classmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week, with many of them having the highly contagious Omicron variant.’ Cornell University confirms that 1,605 new positive cases were reported within the University’s on-campus population, from a group of 28,251 people that were tested during the week of Dec. 10th through Dec. 16th.
If my calculations are correct, that’s a weekly positivity rate of 5.7%, or thereabouts (You can do the math). It’s worth mentioning here too, that as of Dec. 16th, according to Cornell, 97% of their on-campus population are fully vaccinated.
To the best of my knowledge, the University is still not requiring its community members to receive a vaccine booster and has not made any announcements about changing its plans for the spring semester.
Other Colleges and Universities Respond
The myriad number of colleges and Universities that have now shifted to remote instruction and postponed in-person events, including private parties, is mind-boggling. Among them is Middlebury College in Vermont, where campus remains closed to the general public, until further notice. Spectators, including students, their guests, and visitors are prohibited from attending indoor athletics events. Those wishing to attend campus events are encouraged to do so using available virtual formats.
The sudden switch to remote instruction came as Vermont, which is the most vaccinated state in the nation, found itself dealing with a record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
Several schools across the country have postponed their January return to campus. Among them are Southern New Hampshire University, in Manchester, NH, which announced recently that attending students will have to take classes remotely for two weeks, before returning to campus, after the holidays.
Photo at top: Inside the Cornell University COVID-19 Testing Laboratory – Lindsay France; Cornell University. Above: COVID-19 testing site at Fischell Band Center – Lindsay France; Cornell University