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Special Report

Lift the Chorus: As Cornellians everywhere grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, challenges and solidarity abound

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For CAM’s staff, as for everyone who lives and works in the Ithaca area, there are a few brief times each year when East Hill feels empty—moments like winter break, the weeks between Commencement and Reunion, and the handful of days after summer programs wind down but first-years have yet to arrive. This spring, though, that vacancy came shockingly early, and it has yet to end. In mid-March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University made the difficult decision to end in-person instruction for the semester, and most of the student body left town. With head-spinning speed, campus cleared out; like millions of Americans, nearly all faculty and most staff have been working remotely—teaching classes, providing student services, and more from their living rooms and makeshift home offices. Life at Cornell and in Ithaca—as in communities around the world—has been profoundly changed.

Instruction abruptly ended two weeks before spring break, resumed online after it, and was extended an extra week (with exams now set to end on May 23). Students spending the semester abroad were called home, and Cornell’s popular programs in Rome and Washington, D.C., were suspended. Dragon Day and Slope Day were canceled. The swim test has been waived, along with the physical education requirement for graduating seniors. While degrees will be conferred at the end of the semester, the Commencement ceremony has been postponed. Reunion will convene virtually; as of this writing, in mid-April, there are potential plans to hold it in some form at Homecoming. In mid-March, the plight of East Hill’s undergrads stood in for that of students nationwide: a story in the New York Times encapsulated the experience under the headline “College in the Coronavirus Era: Wistful Goodbyes and a Sense of Loss.” As Engineering student Justin Welfeld ’20 told the paper: “I feel like a lot of experiences have been stolen from me.”

The pandemic has also disrupted athletics, on the Hill and everywhere. With the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, Cornellians with gold-medal aspirations, like world-champion wrestler Kyle Dake ’13, have seen their dreams deferred. Most poignantly for Big Red boosters, the men’s and women’s hockey teams—both of which had been enjoying fantastic seasons—lost the chance to vie for their national championships. (See this story.) And athletes who play spring sports like baseball barely saw their seasons begin before they were canceled.

Graduate and professional students, too, have had their work disrupted. Research facilities have shut down and libraries are closed. The Medical College and Cornell Tech have also shifted to online instruction. Weill Cornell, whose teaching hospital (NewYork-Presbyterian) is on the front lines of New York City’s medical response, was one of numerous MD programs that let its fourth-year students graduate a few weeks early, allowing them to shore up the ranks of clinical staff before beginning their residencies. As Graham Winston, MD ’20, said of beginning his career amid the COVID crisis: “Regardless of specialty, this is what we all signed up for.”

With just a few weeks’ notice, University faculty made an all-out effort to transition their courses to a virtual format. On April 6, the Ithaca campus joined the legions of schools, colleges, and universities around the world teaching online—and that first day alone, Big Red faculty led 6,600 Zoom meetings with a total of 89,000 participants. (Students will be allowed to choose satisfactory/unsatisfactory rather than a letter grade right up until the end of classes.) Also in early April, the University announced a host of decisions intended to safeguard its finances amid the turmoil. They include a staff hiring freeze, a salary freeze for the next fiscal year, a ban on discretionary spending, and a review of current capital projects. Leaders including the president, provost, and deans have taken voluntary six-month pay cuts. “Every dollar of these recaptured funds,” administrators said in a statement, “will be used to help meet the financial aid needs of our undergraduate, graduate, or professional students.”

Alumni in a variety of fields have been on the pandemic’s front lines before a national or even international audience. Journalist Kate Snow ’91 has not only covered the issue extensively for NBC News, but chronicled her own family’s struggle as she tended to a sick husband from a safe distance, all while caring for two teenagers and working from home. Maria De Joseph Van Kerkhove ’99, an expert on emerging diseases at the World Health Organization, conducted Q&A sessions on coronavirus that have had more than 190,000 views on YouTube. Melissa DeRosa ’04, MPA ’09, chief aide to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, has been deftly fielding questions at his daily press briefings. Most prominently of all, Anthony Fauci, MD ’66—director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key player in the U.S. response to epidemics since HIV/AIDS in the Eighties—has been the federal government’s primary medical voice during the pandemic, a role that has earned him wide acclaim.

Through it all, Cornellians worldwide have reached out to each other online, extending their arms in a virtual embrace to share news, support, and inspiration. In addition to the planned virtual Reunion, Alumni Affairs is offering a variety of web-based activities, from classes to happy hours; for a listing, go to alumni.cornell.edu/events. The Cornell Club’s regular “Breakfast Club” networking events are still being held—just via webcam. On Cornell’s International Affairs website (global.cornell.edu), members of the University community are being invited to share “an event, moment, act, or relationship” that they’ve found moving. Subjects have included a CALS PhD candidate who successfully defended her thesis via Zoom from India, and an entomology doctoral student who described receiving moral support over Twitter as she wrestled with whether to leave her remote research site in the Peruvian Amazon as Americans were being evacuated—a connection, she wrote, that “felt like being thrown a lifeline.”

The University has also marshaled its vast expertise to provide essential information to alumni and the general public. A CALS website details best practices for food safety during the pandemic; Johnson School professors host webinars to aid businesses during the economic downturn; the Medical College offers insight on such subjects as children’s mental health during social distancing, staying safe while running essential errands like grocery shopping, and the distinctions between the symptoms of COVID-19 and allergies. As President Martha Pollack wrote in early April: “In uncertain times, it can help to focus on what is in front of you, and what you can control: your interactions with others, your studies, the task at hand.”

Here in Ithaca, the pandemic’s financial impact is being deeply felt, as the departure of thousands of Cornellians, as well as the New York State mandate to close non-essential businesses, have had a dire effect on the economy. As the Daily Sun reported, one of the biggest players in the local food scene—the parent company of such eateries as Ithaca Bakery, Collegetown Bagels, and Rulloff’s—was forced to lay off 400 employees. While some establishments in town have remained open for takeout and delivery, numerous others have shuttered—hopefully only temporarily. In response to the plight of local workers, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 called for a rent freeze for tenants who’ve lost their income (and corresponding mortgage relief for their landlords). The cancellation of Commencement and in-person Reunion will mean further losses for area hotels and restaurants, depriving them of major sources of annual revenue.

Amid the many challenges, though, there have been innumerable acts of generosity, kindness, and solidarity. One Collegetown Bagels site—located downtown, half a block from CAM’s offices—is offering “pay what you can” meals for anyone in financial straits. Cornell’s closed research labs donated vitally needed protective gear to medical workers in Ithaca and beyond. In March, the University sent its Campus-to-Campus bus to New York City loaded with supplies, including ventilators and other equipment on loan from the Vet college. In early April—as hundreds cheered from the roadside—Cornell sent two more buses filled with more than sixty doctors, nurses, and other professionals from Cayuga Medical Center en route to spend a month helping their hard-hit colleagues in the city. As Pollack said during a send-off ceremony: “These volunteers, and all of the healthcare workers at the forefront of this pandemic, are acting with courage and compassion in a situation that is both unprecedented and incredibly challenging.”

The list of ways in which Cornell and Cornellians have worked to aid others goes on and on. Big Red food scientists have advised distilleries across the state on retooling their operations to produce hand sanitizer. Through the Law School’s clinical programs, its faculty, students, and staff have offered free legal advice on such topics as accessing benefits and writing a will. When a local supermarket ran low on milk due to the run on staples, Cornell Dairy filled its coolers; to help feed children in need due to the lack of school lunches, Cornell Orchards donated 26,000 apples to two local districts. As the campus libraries shut down, their staff organized to deliver books to grateful doctoral scholars, who’d lost access to their study carrels. Volunteers—safely distanced—flocked to Bartels Hall to sew thousands of surgical masks. Three undergrads launched a website, dubbed Quarantine Buddy, aimed at combatting loneliness by matching strangers with common interests. Cornell Tech developed a virtual lesson plan in computer science to aid New York City public school teachers. Legions of 3D printers were fired up across multiple Cornell campuses to fabricate protective visors for medical staff. Two recent Hotel grads started a GoFundMe campaign for Collegetown restaurants, among myriad ways Americans have tried to support suffering workers in the service economy. “We need the Cornell community’s help and we need the Ithaca community’s help,” one of those Hotelies, Rob Karp ’19, told the Sun. “We need the alumni to step in and make sure there’s something when school starts again in August.”

In a statement released in mid-March, President Pollack shared her thoughts about the challenges facing the University and the world at large—the first communication she’d dedicated to her reflections on the crisis, rather than its many logistical details. In the widely praised message, which would later be quoted in the New York Times, she urged readers to be patient with each other as they adapt to a startling new reality. “I am a bridge player—not a very good one, but I do enjoy the game,” she wrote. “In bridge, you are sometimes dealt a great hand: lots of high cards, distributed across the suits in an advantageous way. Other times, you are dealt a terrible hand. The great hands are unquestionably more fun to play, but every bridge player knows that you have to play the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes, doing an outstanding job with a terrible hand can be incredibly rewarding. Right now, we’ve all been dealt a bad hand—and we have to play it, and play it to the best of our abilities.”

 

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