Cornell announces proactive measures to prevent spread of coronavirus

Dear Members of the Cornell Community,

As the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has spread around the world, it has challenged all of us in different ways. Some of us may have relatives in countries that were impacted early, others may have elderly relatives about whom we are worried, still others may be immunocompromised and at high risk themselves. All of us, I’m sure, are concerned about how the virus will affect our day-to-day lives over the next few weeks and possibly months. This is a moment that is different from what any of us has experienced before and, as such, it can be frightening. But it is also a moment for us to remember that we are a strong community that will do what it takes to protect ourselves and to support one another.

In that vein, I write to you today with some important updates. We have a team of leaders that has been working tirelessly over the last number of weeks, consulting with experts in public health and emergency management and implementing policies on issues ranging from travel, to size of meetings and events, to international study programs. I want to publicly thank them for their hard work. The policies that we have put in place to date are extremely important, but the time has come for us to do even more. While there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tompkins County, we must do all we can to minimize future community spread.

  • Most significantly, we will move to virtual instruction. We are asking faculty to begin that transition now so that after spring break all instruction – for the rest of the semester – will be online. We will be asking all undergraduate students and many professional degree students to leave campus at the start of spring break and to remain at their permanent home residence, completing their semesters remotely. (When essential, we will honor requests for exemptions.)
  • Graduate and professional students involved in individual rotations or doing individual research may continue their programs but must limit travel and group activities consistent with our other policies.
  • We are tightening our policies for group events to prohibit all nonessential events of more than 100 people, on and off campus, even when they include only members of the Cornell community. This excludes classroom teaching through March 27. Additionally, we are strongly discouraging university-sponsored events that bring outside guests to campus; these should occur only with guidance from college leadership.
  • With the exception of students returning home for spring break (and remaining there for the rest of the semester), we are strongly discouraging all domestic travel, both personal and Cornell-related. Restrictions on international travel remain unchanged.
  • We are implementing further enhanced cleaning procedures for our facilities.

More details on each of the above items are provided below, so it is important that you read this message in its entirety. Where appropriate, individual colleges and units will be sending out additional guidance relevant to their specific communities.

Please also know that these decisions were made only with great reluctance. I recognize how disruptive they will be and how much disappointment they will cause, especially the decision to move to virtual instruction. We are asking students to miss out on the enormous value of face-to-face instruction and on the camaraderie of their peers. I appreciate that this will be especially disappointing for our graduating seniors. We are asking faculty to adjust their plans and to take on the significant task of developing different ways to deliver education. We are asking staff to perform a host of additional work as they provide critical support for these changes. But all of these actions are necessary if we are to be responsive to the recommendations of public health officials regarding how best to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health of our community, especially of the most vulnerable among us.

As always, we encourage each of you to attend to your mental health and well-being. And please also remember that there are some basic steps that you can and should take as an individual during this outbreak:

  1. Wash your hands frequently, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds; and
  2. Avoid close contact with others if you are feeling sick.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, we are a strong community and one in which we support each other. In my nearly three years at Cornell, I have come to love this community and to appreciate the deep respect that members of the community have for one another. I am therefore confident that we will pull together and do what is right in the face of this unique challenge. Thank you – every one of you – for being a part of Cornell and for doing all that you can to care for each other.


Martha E. Pollack

Move to virtual instruction

While there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tompkins County, we want to do all we can to minimize the community spread of the virus, which could prove challenging if many of our community members were to leave for spring break (March 28-April 5) and return to campus. Accordingly,

  • We will start transitioning to online learning immediately, so that beginning on Monday, April 6, Cornell’s Ithaca campus will move entirely to virtual, remote learning. This will allow students to complete their semester coursework off campus from their permanent home residences. Faculty are encouraged to provide options for remote/virtual instruction as soon as possible.
  • All students who live on campus will receive detailed instructions from our housing office regarding move-out procedures as well as a process for submitting a petition to stay in on-campus housing for those who are unable to return to your permanent home residence at the beginning of spring break. Students who remain on campus will also complete their coursework virtually; while dining halls will remain open, students should expect severely limited on-campus activities.
  • The Ithaca campus will remain open, and all faculty and staff should continue their regular work schedules. Any faculty and staff who are sick should stay home. See “Workplace Guidance” below for more information.
  • Given the number of confirmed cases in New York City, Cornell Tech and all New York City-based programming, including classes at AAP, the Johnson School and the ILR conference center at 570 Lexington, will move to virtual instruction. Cornell Tech’s transition will take place March 12 with other NYC programs to follow. (Weill Cornell Medicine has already announced its move to online instruction.)

We recognize that this change raises a significant number of logistical questions, which we will address in communications to follow. We ask for your patience as various campus offices adjust their plans and work to provide detailed guidance to all of their constituents.

Support for transitioning to virtual coursework

The shift to virtual instruction will be a significant transition for many students and faculty, and we are committed to supporting our community throughout this process.

The provost’s office and the dean of the faculty have been actively engaged with college and school deans over the past several weeks to prepare for the shift to virtual instruction with minimal disruption. The Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) has assembled a comprehensive set of resources to assist faculty, and later today Provost Kotlikoff will send a message to all faculty outlining key aspects of the upcoming transition. CTI and Cornell Information Technology (CIT) are also preparing resources to assist faculty and students in connecting to Zoom and other remote access technologies. We will implement a transition period in advance of spring break to ensure that remote access and instruction are functioning smoothly.

On- and off-campus events

Last week, we announced new restrictions on large events and visitors to campus. Today, we are expanding those restrictions.

Effective immediately, all in-person, nonessential Cornell events with 100 or more attendees, in venues both on and off campus, must be postponed, cancelled or offered virtually; and we urge everyone to consider whether even smaller events can be postponed/cancelled. “Nonessential” means anything unrelated to educational instruction or food service. Educational activities that include guests or spectators should be held without those audiences. The Board of Trustees has decided to hold its March meetings online, most alumni events are being cancelled or postponed, and annual spring events, such as Cornell Days and Dragon Day, will not be held. Attendance at athletic events will be severely restricted to three guests per team member. More details on specific events will be forthcoming.

Additionally, we strongly encourage faculty and staff to postpone or cancel any nonessential visits to campus by those outside of our Cornell community. Faculty and staff are encouraged to seek guidance from their colleges, the provost’s office or Human Resources if they are unsure about what qualifies as “essential.”

University-sponsored events that bring outside guests to campus are also strongly discouraged and should occur only with guidance from college leadership.

We will reassess these event/visitor restrictions no later than April 1, and we will update you should changes be made. While we sincerely hope to hold our traditional Commencement Weekend, it is unknown at this time whether that will be possible. Members of the commencement office and colleagues from across the university will review all options and make a recommendation later this month. 

Nonessential domestic travel

With the exception of students traveling home for spring break and the duration of the semester, we strongly discourage any nonessential domestic travel, personal or Cornell-related, by faculty, staff and students. International travel restrictions remain unchanged.

Enhanced cleaning procedures, changes to dining service

We are taking significant precautionary measures related to cleaning procedures for our facilities and changes to dining services. Cornell Building Care staff follow recommended cleaning guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NYS Department of Health, and use of Environmental Protection Agency-approved disinfectants. We have also enhanced our cleaning practices by increasing the frequency of cleaning high touch point areas such as door handles, light switches and tables.

Dining services is eliminating all self-service options, converting from china to disposable containers and utensils, and suspending use of reusable cups and mugs. These changes, and more, will go into effect on March 11.

Workplace guidance

Human Resources has developed new guidance to assist faculty and staff in considering their options to work remotely, if necessary, as well as guidance on what to do if you or a member of your household is directed by the health department to undergo quarantine. New guidelines for pay practices are also available. Any employee who needs additional assistance should contact the Human Resources lead for their college or unit.

Preventative measures that everyone can take

Public health officials recommend using good personal hygiene practices, minimizing close contact among groups of people and avoiding contact with others if you feel ill. Please follow these simple steps to protect yourself and others.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water is not available.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick; call ahead before visiting your doctor or Cornell Health.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

Visit Cornell’s coronavirus webpage for ongoing updates.