Cornell University Has Gotten Their Covid-19 Protocols Right. Other Schools Have Not.

By | September 22, 2020

Soon after many students spread out to various colleges and universities around the country, news also spread of large outbreaks, school closures, fraternities going on suspension, and students being sent home, also on suspension. The State University of New York (SUNY) Oneonta, located in central New York state, with a student population of just over 6,000, reported 680 cases of Covid-19 as of September 21, 2020.

By Labor Day weekend, SUNY Oneonta closed its doors to all in-person classes, and sent students who were living in campus dormitories home for the remainder of the fall semester. Several students who remained in the city of Oneonta, and posted photographs of themselves congregating, were issued disciplinary action, and in some cases, suspension, by the university’s President Barbara Jean Morris.

In her statement, President Morris said: “We have zero tolerance for this type of irresponsible and unsafe behavior and will always pursue this immediate action in the spirit of the overwhelming number of SUNY Oneonta students who followed safety protocols and lost out on a semester on campus because of the behavior of a few.” When additional groups of students were found not complying with the university’s code of conduct, she again stated: “It is deeply disappointing that following the severe action SUNY Oneonta took just days ago to shift to remote learning for all students, we are still faced with the reckless and irresponsible behavior of a few that are damaging the reputation of our campus and our dedicated students who followed the safety rules every day and were looking forward to a great semester on campus.”

San Diego State University, (SDSU) across the country from Oneonta and in a more urban setting, has over 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. While many live on campus, many live in the surrounding San Diego area. Due to a sharp rise in cases of Covid-19 at SDSU as well as in San Diego county in early September, the school closed all in-person classes and remains fully remote. Two weeks later, the university issued a requirement that all students living on campus needed to be tested for Covid-19, but this was a new initiative that had not been in place prior to the start of the semester. By September 20th, close to 900 cases of Covid-19 had been reported, primarily in students living in off-campus housing.

Just 85 miles due west of SUNY Oneonta, Cornell University, located in the city of Ithaca, has reported just over 120 test-positive cumulative cases of Covid-19 among all students between mid-August and September 21, 2020. Cornell has over 15,000 undergraduate and over 8,000 graduate students. Their current rate of Covid-19 positive tests is 0.02%. They remain open for select in-person classes, students remain living in on-campus dorms and well as off campus, and the university Covid-19 status have recently moved to the lowest tier alert level, Green, which denotes “Cases are rare and transmission is low.” Alert level Red would mean a school-wide shut-down (significant increase in infection, with limited hospital capacity) followed by Orange (increasing rates of infection) and Yellow (increased potential for increased transmission).

Other schools, such as Amherst College, a small liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts, and Boston University a large university in the heart of Boston, have also managed to remain open, at least in part. While neither population has demonstrated perfect compliance with respect to Covid-19 safety protocol, those straying have been quickly identified and restricted.

How can some university campuses make it work for safe in-person living and learning, while others develop such sharp spikes in cases that the semester (or year) needs to be shut down with a week or two of opening? Factors such as geography (counties with high community versus low community spread), size of the student body, close containment of a given student body, living arrangements of students, and urban versus rural settings seem to play a part, but there are more considerations here. Some rural schools have needed to close, while some urban schools remain successfully open.

William Biederman, a Cornell junior majoring in history, has been comfortable on campus thus far. The attention to detail, testing, surveillance, tracking, and continued multi-leveled safety measures at Cornell seem to all have played a part. These measures began long before the school year began, and the school has thus avoided the need to play ‘catch-up’ if and when cases began to develop. Because William was coming from a part of the country with surging cases in July and August, per university mandate, he arrived in the Ithaca vicinity two weeks prior to his move-in date, and stayed in a hotel thirty miles south of Ithaca for two weeks of quarantine. The close monitoring didn’t end there: “I had my scheduled arrival date on the 31st of August, where I received my test and was shuttled to a hotel for 24 hours to wait for clearance prior to move in. Post move-in, the protocol has been to be tested twice per week. Cornell has a “daily check portal” where you complete a form every single day, answering 4 questions about whether or not you have had symptoms, and if you have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive.”

William is currently taking his classes remotely, as Cornell has created a hybrid model for both in-person and remote learning. He is living in a dorm on campus, where students use an app to schedule meal pick-up, and can arrange curbside supply pick-up at the on-campus store. He feels very safe on campus, noting “from the well-organized arrival procedure, to the twice-weekly testing, things just seem to run smoothly. While many other schools around the country struggled to contain clusters on campus, Cornell was able to quickly identify, isolate, and quarantine those who tested positive. Cornell’s behavioral compact and testing program are incredibly thorough and are capable of identifying cases quickly and efficiently to prevent the spread of the virus in the campus population.”

Has it been perfect? Of course not. Despite the detailed Cornell Student Behavioral Compact, delineating each student’s role in maintaining guidelines for safety, testing, tracing, self-isolating, social distancing, masking, and reporting, there have been some, albeit very few, large gatherings. For the most part, the students are taking this very seriously: “Those responsible for keeping the students in check are the students themselves — we were provided with a link to report any kind of reckless behavior in violation of the Cornell Behavioral Compact through a web portal. There were a number of parties, specifically held by student athletes and other organizations, that happened off campus during Labor Day weekend and the first weekend of school,” states Biederman, but these have been addressed quickly. “The vast majority of Cornell students have been following the Behavioral Compact closely, and this collective effort to follow the rules is what has really made Cornell’s reactivation process successful. Without the cooperation of the students in the whole process, we would have been sent home a long time ago.”

And this Cornell history major had some wise words for not only college students struggling with so much more than the usual issues of a fall semester, but also for those of us older than the college crowd: “This might not be everyone’s ideal college experience, I totally agree with that, but this is a time we will never forget — the lessons we learn during this pandemic are ones we will carry for the rest of our lives. We are finally able to focus on our own health in ways we have never done before, and we have learned to value every minute we spend with our loved ones, friends, and family, and to never take that time for granted. The only thing that is certain is that there will be uncertainty during this time, sometimes you just have to roll with what the world gives you, and make the best of it.”

Indeed we are living in uncertain times. And we have little choice other than to make the best of it.

Forbes – Healthcare

Read More:  Thank you!