Cornell enacts new, strict rules amid COVID-19 uptick, most classes get pushed online


Given the surge in COVID-19 cases in its community, and a corresponding uptick on campus, Mount Vernon’s Cornell College is imposing new student, faculty, and staff restrictions — prohibiting guests in residence hall rooms, for example, and limiting reasons students can leave their dorms.

“Residential students may only leave their residence hall to attend class, pick up meals, study in the library, participate in health center testing, exercise, or other wellness activities, and work at an on-campus or off-campus job,” according to the new restrictions announced Friday.

“Small group gatherings are not safe,” Cornell President Jonathan Brand wrote in a message to campus spelling out the strict guidance. “Based on patterns of transmission we have recently seen, we also strongly recommend that you refrain from traveling by car with other people.”

Cornell — which went without any COVID-19 cases for longer than most campuses, and until recently kept cases in the single digits — also is pausing all in-person extracurricular activities, team athletic practices and activities, and choir and music ensembles. Faculty and staff must work from home, if possible, and they no longer will have access to campus dining services.

As Cornell operates on a 10-block-per-year schedule, all changes are effective immediately through block four, which runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 23. The current block three ends Nov. 25, and administrators recommend all faculty teach virtually for the rest of this session and all of the next.

“COVID-19 cases are rising across the globe as well as here at home on the Hilltop as we enter into the winter season,” according to Brand’s Friday message. “While students testing positive have thankfully experienced mild symptoms so far, we worry about additional positive cases.”

Plus, he said, Cornell’s bump in cases “is now straining our employees and our campus resources.”

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Cornell’s campus COVID-case total recently has risen to 80 from both on- and off-campus testing of students and employees since Aug. 6 — as case tallies have been soaring exponentially in the surrounding communities and in Linn County.

“We were under 10 just a couple weeks ago,” Brand told The Gazette of the COVID prevalence on his campus — which currently has 1,002 enrolled students, 799 of whom live in the residence system.

Enforcement

In addition to limiting when its mostly residential students can leave their rooms, Cornell is barring students from visiting friends in other rooms or allowing any guests in their room.

That mandated isolation has some Cornell students worried about their mental health — including Ani Stevenson, who shared with The Gazette some about her struggles with mental illness and need for physical contact.

“I rely heavily on spending time with friends and receiving things like hugs to help me cope,” Stevenson said in an email to Assistant Residence Life Director Olivia Lennon, seeking an exception from the new COVID rules. “My next door neighbor is my closest friend on campus, and if I cannot have them visit my room or vice versa to spend time together, I do not think I will be able to stay on campus.”

Lennon denied the request, noting, “Most of the spread we’re seeing right now is through close contact in one-on-one interactions and small group gatherings. These new expectations are meant to try and curb this.”

She suggested a virtual alternative, like nightly Zoom calls with friends.

“If you believe that being on campus with the new expectations is not going to be a good environment, you are welcome to return home for the semester and complete your courses remotely,” Lennon wrote.

Stevenson and several of her peers told The Gazette they’re frustrated with the new strict guidance following what they perceive as “lackluster at best” enforcement of earlier, less-severe campus rules — like mask wearing and social distancing.

The students reported seeing peers and even Cornell employees without masks.

“When I try to remind them of the rules, I’m either ignored or verbally harassed,” Stevenson told Lennon. “Things as simple as making sure students eat during their actual cohorts aren’t being enforced equally by different staff. It feels quite cruel that the students are being punished for the school’s inability to enforce its own rules.”

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Cornell administrators during a Sunday evening Zoom forum addressed the issue of enforcement, asking students to continue reporting incidents of COVID misconduct.

“Students are reporting that they’re still frequently seeing people not wearing their masks,” Dean of Students and Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Gwen Schimek-Tischler said during the forum, promising to follow-up and investigate each allegation.

With cases rising, she said, Cornell has shifted from primarily educating violators to penalizing them — in some cases placing students on probation or asking them to leave campus and continue their studies virtually elsewhere.

To date, Cornell has sent about 10 students home due to COVID violations, some involving significant first infractions and others after repeat warnings to follow basic rules.

“We also have about 50 students right now who are on probation for COVID-related violations,” Schimek-Tischler said. “Being on probation means that any further reports that we get will likely result in your being sent home.”

Testing

Brand acknowledged the challenges facing every student and employee this fall — and that no campus has found the “right” answer or one that makes everyone happy. He said administrators are checking in daily with students in isolation or quarantine.

“I’ve been out and bought shampoo for students, we have toilet paper delivered regularly when they ask for it,” said Lynn O’Brien, Cornell Student Health Services director. “We were able to get their books delivered to them. Really, we’re working very hard to meet their needs and identify what we can do to make it more palatable for them to be in isolation.”

Cornell credited some of its early success in keeping COVID-19 at bay to its randomized and stratified testing scheme that proactively tests clusters and cohorts considered higher risk for spread — like choirs and residence hall floors.

With cases rising and holiday travel upcoming, Cornell is further opening its testing operation beyond those chosen for the randomized testing or those with symptoms or close contacts. For the remainder of block three and all block four, anyone planning to leave campus for break can make an appointment to get tested at the Student Health Center.

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In that Cornell has made on-campus housing available for isolation or quarantine — and has plenty of space left — administrators advised, “increased testing in block four means that you may be required to follow quarantine or isolation protocols, which could affect your plans to return home.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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