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From the President

Safety First: A detailed look at the University’s plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19, on the Hill and in the Ithaca community


The following message was sent to the Cornell and Ithaca communities on August 5. It has been slightly edited for length. The full text, along with other recent messages, can be found at


Jason Koski/UREL

As we look ahead to the autumn and to the return of students to Ithaca, I know that many of you have concerns about Cornell’s decision to reopen for residential instruction. Since we announced our plans, I have replied to dozens of messages from the Cornell community and greater Ithaca area, asking how we plan to prevent the spread of coronavirus across campus and into the Ithaca community. Some have shared their feeling that our decision to reopen was made not on the grounds of health, but on the basis of Cornell’s finances.

As Cornell’s president, I feel acutely our responsibility to safeguard the health and well-being of not only our students, but of our entire community: those who study and work at Cornell, and those living in the region we call home. As we have determined our path forward during this pandemic, I want to be absolutely clear that every one of our decisions has been, and will continue to be, driven by that responsibility, not by our own financial considerations. Rather, we made the choice to reopen based on our finding—counterintuitive though it may be—that an in-person semester is the best possible way for Cornell to limit the spread of the coronavirus, on our campus and across the Ithaca region.

As much as we would all like for Cornell to have a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus among and beyond our student population, it is clear that no such option exists—even if we were to conduct the fall semester online. Most of our students live off campus, in privately leased accommodations over which Cornell has no legal authority. Thousands of them have told us that they plan to return to Ithaca even in the event of an all-online semester—in which case we would be extremely limited in our ability to control how and where they gather, or to mandate their compliance with any testing and isolation protocol.

Over the past months, we have modeled multiple scenarios for Cornell’s operation and the likely path of viral spread in each case. The decisions we have made have been guided by those findings (which have been updated as the pandemic has progressed) and by the similar findings and comparable modeling by others. We have relied as well on the evidence-based best practices laid out by public health experts such as Anthony Fauci, MD ’66, who has stated that colleges can safely reopen if they regularly test as many people as possible; isolate those who are infected; and then identify and isolate everyone with whom the infected people have been in contact, to break the chain of transmission. Such mass testing, known as surveillance testing, makes it possible to identify people who are infected early, even before they have symptoms, and will allow the Tompkins County Health Department, with the help of additional staff being trained at Cornell Health, to trace and identify their contacts. Surveillance testing, in combination with contact tracing and isolation, is central to the best practices that can prevent young people, many of whom may become infected without ever feeling ill, from spreading COVID-19 into the broader community.

In order to keep our community safe, Cornell must engage all of our students in these best practices. And to do that effectively, we need all of our students living in the area to participate regularly and fully—which means we need them to be physically coming to campus. Reopening with in-person instruction will allow us to employ all of the public health measures we know to be effective, by requiring that all students, regardless of whether they are living off or on campus, agree to and sign a behavioral compact. We have also developed a robust public health campaign to reinforce the types of behaviors we want our entire community to follow and model.

Under the terms of the compact, students must agree to undergo regular testing for the coronavirus, as mandated and provided by Cornell, and to submit an online daily check, attesting that they have not engaged in any activity (such as travel) that would require quarantine or additional testing. Students living on campus who are traveling from restricted areas are encouraged to begin their semester remotely at their permanent residence until their state is removed from the NYS travel advisory. And most importantly, students will be tested when they first arrive on campus, and again a few days later. After that, all undergraduates will be tested twice weekly; faculty, staff, and graduate and professional students will also be tested regularly, depending on their campus contact. Students must also agree to comply with strict university policies regarding facial coverings, physical distancing, and approved gatherings, and other policies as they may evolve throughout the semester, and our residential living spaces will be monitored for compliance with this compact.

Cornell students are adults and private citizens, and the University cannot police every aspect of their personal behavior on and off campus. However, we have been clear to our students that the behavioral compact is binding and will be enforced. The consequences for knowingly submitting inaccurate information to Cornell, or for violations of Cornell’s public health rules, will be significant: ranging from loss of access to campus facilities to suspension from the University without refund of tuition. It is equally critical for our entire non-student community to model safe behavior in all aspects of on-campus and off-campus life.

Even with all of these measures in place, we know we will not be able to insulate ourselves from the continuing spread of this virus, and we must be prepared for the inevitable cases. Because of our plan for surveillance testing of faculty, staff, and the roughly 20,000 students we expect to return to Ithaca, we anticipate finding many hundreds, and probably more than a thousand, of coronavirus cases in the Cornell community over the coming semester—many of which would have gone undetected without the rigorous testing protocols we have put into place. Inevitably, some cases will be more severe, and a small percentage may result in hospitalization. While this is clearly a distressing outlook, it is nevertheless by far the best available option: according to our modeling, with an all-online scenario the number of infections may be as much as six to nine times higher, with several thousand infections. The precision of numerical projections based on modeling is necessarily limited, but in any reasonable scenario, modeling predicts a greater level of infection for an online semester than for an in-person one.

More than anything, I wish there were a better alternative—one that would enable us to completely eliminate the risk of our students contracting and spreading this virus. If there were such an option, we would have chosen it. But without a path of complete safety, we must choose the safest path available to us. This is what we have done, relying on the best available science, and we are committed to continuing to make every decision in the best interests of public health as this pandemic inevitably continues to evolve.

We have been and continue to be in continuous contact with both the Tompkins County Health Department and Cayuga Health System to ensure that we are as prepared as possible for both local outbreaks and a wider regional rise in cases. We have invested millions of dollars in
repurposing Cornell laboratory space for rapid coronavirus testing, adding to our local testing capacity so that we may safely test students, staff, and faculty with a turnaround time under twenty-four hours. We have also secured the space and put in place the infrastructure to safely isolate and support all of our infected students both on and off campus, providing delivered meals and health checks as needed. Using data gathered through our surveillance testing and the daily check, we will closely monitor our campus community and respond appropriately when required—whether that means scaling up testing, enacting additional behavioral restrictions, imposing broader quarantine measures, or, if it becomes necessary, even closing down the University once more.

While many of the factors underlying our decision to reopen are unique to our situation, I want to be clear that Cornell is not an outlier in deciding to bring its students back to campus. Indeed, many of our peer institutions—even those that are going all online for classes—are bringing back thousands of their students. As we all have learned, there are no perfect solutions to this deeply imperfect situation. All we can do is strive our hardest for the best solutions we can find. At Cornell, this is what we have done: using the best available data, and the best available science, to find the safest path forward for our community and our region.

— Martha E. Pollack