A crush of coronavirus cases — with the highly contagious Omicron variant the suspected culprit — has prompted Cornell University to close its main campus in Ithaca, New York, even as final exams are already underway.
More than 400 new Covid-19 cases were confirmed over the weekend of December 11-12, and another 276 confirmed positives were reported via the school’s Covid-19 dashboard on Monday, December 13. The next day, Tuesday, Cornell announced the closure of its Ithaca campus and the move online or rescheduling of all exams. Winter graduation ceremonies have been canceled.
No fatalities have been reported. In a letter to the university, Cornell President Martha Pollack wrote: “It is obviously extremely dispiriting to have to take these steps. However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff, and students.
“We have faced many challenges together over the last many months. I am confident that we can once again rise to meet this current challenge so we can all take a well-deserved break.”
883 NEW STUDENT CASES IN THE LAST WEEK
Cornell SC Johnson College of Business Dean Andrew Karolyi provided a separate statement about the closure to Poets&Quants: “Our number-one priority is to ensure the safety of our students, staff, faculty, and the broader community. As such, the SC Johnson College of Business will follow the university and move final exams for the semester online. More than 97% of the people on campus are fully vaccinated, and so taking swift action will help us minimize any further spread.”
The explosion of cases in the wider university population is striking. In the week of December 7 to December 13, 883 new student cases were reported, for a positivity rate of more than 4% — prompting the school to move to a “Red” high-alert level.
The outbreak has occurred despite Cornell’s reported 97% vaccination rate among the on-campus population, including more than 26,000 completed student vaccinations and more than 13,300 vaccinations among faculty and staff.
There is evidence, Pollack wrote, that the Omicron variant “generally causes milder cases, particularly among vaccinated individuals. However, when you have high transmissibility, you’re going to have very high numbers of cases, and so even with lower rates of serious illness, outbreaks must be taken seriously.”
Cornell is the second Ivy League school to move instruction online this semester. In late September, Harvard Business School was forced to move all MBA classes online after a “steady rise in breakthrough infections” among students. HBS was later criticized by a Washington Post columnist who said the school made the move too hastily, but Harvard has so far avoided further outbreaks.
‘WE NEED TO DO WHAT WE CAN TO LIMIT FURTHER SPREAD’
At Cornell, in addition to rescheduling or moving all final exams online, Pollack announced:
- All university activities involving undergraduates (including events and social gatherings) and all university-sponsored events (including winter celebrations) are canceled.
- A December 18 recognition ceremony for December graduates is canceled.
- Students utilizing Cornell Dining are strongly encouraged to “grab-and-go”; if you must eat near others, please do so at a distance.
- Libraries are closed to students.
- Athletics competitions on Sunday are canceled. Fitness centers and gyms are closed to students.
- Offices and labs remain open, but undergraduate students should not participate in any work-study or lab work.
“We need to do what we can to limit further spread, even though we are just a few days away from the end of the semester,” Pollack wrote.