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Game Change: As students return to the Hill, athletics, physical education, and intramurals adapt to new COVID safety regulations


When the coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of in-person instruction last spring, it meant the cancellation of all sports, most phys ed classes, and many recreational opportunities. Even Cornell’s storied swim test requirement was waived for the Class of 2020.

With students returning to East Hill for the fall, athletics, physical education, and recreation will also be back. But they will look very different than they do in a typical semester.

In July, the Ivy League Council of Presidents announced that competition in all fall sports—which include football, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, cross country, golf, tennis, rowing, and sailing—was canceled. The fate of winter and spring sports remains up in the air, though the league noted that no winter competitions could be held until after the end of fall semester, which likely impacts teams like basketball and hockey, whose games normally start in November. “These decisions are extremely difficult, particularly when they impact meaningful student-athlete experiences that so many value and cherish,” President Martha Pollack and her seven Ivy colleagues said in a joint statement. “With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall.”

On the bright side, athletes whose seasons are canceled will retain a year of competitive eligibility (although financial aid constraints could make it difficult for some to extend their time on the Hill in order to use it) and the Ivy League opened the door to the possibility of holding fall sports competitions in the spring. Both in-season and out-of-season teams will be allowed to hold workouts and practices this fall; activities will be introduced in phases, beginning with strength-and-conditioning sessions and segueing into small-group practices, provided all COVID-19 prevention guidelines are followed. “Losing the opportunity to compete in the short term is a heartbreak to everyone closely connected to the programs, from the student-athletes and coaches to families and staff,” says Andy Noel, Cornell’s director of athletics. “However, given the magnitude of the global pandemic, health and safety must be our focus.”

As Noel explains, although it’s expected that athletes will able be to safely participate with teammates, bringing competitors together from different institutions—even in sports where social distancing can be maintained, such as tennis or golf—would present a risk. There are also logistical challenges of complying with the patchwork of quarantine rules that vary from state to state. Says Noel: “Travel was certainly a huge driver behind the decision to not hold competitions in the fall.” And he stresses that the success of all sports activities rests on athletes’ commitment to follow health and safety guidelines. “We feel Cornell athletes should be leaders in wearing face coverings and following all social distancing protocols,” he says. “It’s important for them to set an example for everyone to follow.”

Although the swim test has been waived for 2021 graduates as it was for 2020, phys ed requirements remain in effect; due to COVID safety constraints, about 300 classes will be offered this fall compared to nearly 500 a year ago. Those whose participants can maintain at least six feet of social distance will be held in person with face coverings required. When such guidelines aren’t practical—such as in dance classes—sessions will be held via Zoom. For some outdoor pursuits like biking, hiking, and jogging, participants will be tracked via GPS as they complete prescribed activities. “We’re making these online classes easier to take than they were in the spring,” says Jennifer Gudaz, senior associate director of athletics and director of physical education and of recreational services. “We’ll be offering more sessions, especially in the early morning and evening hours [Eastern time] so students can easily participate no matter where they’re located.”

Intramurals will be limited to sports that allow for social distancing, such as badminton and tennis. Outdoor fitness and recreation facilities will be open, including trails for walking, hiking, biking, and running. As in spring 2020, instructor-led virtual recreation sessions—including yoga, Pilates, and fitness—will again be offered. “Back in March and April, we were trying to stay one step ahead of everything,” Gudaz says. “Now, as we go into the fall, I feel like we’re five steps ahead. We’ve had more time to prepare, and we know much better how to meet the challenges we’re facing.”

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