COVID-19 Vaccination and Fall Instruction

Dear Cornell Community,

Although we all appreciate that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over and that we must remain vigilant around public health measures to protect ourselves and our community, there is reason to be hopeful as we plan for the future. More than 90 million U.S. residents have safely received one or more doses of a currently approved COVID-19 vaccine, and recent data indicate that these vaccines not only protect those inoculated from serious infection, but also are protective for asymptomatic infection and the risk of transmission of virus to others.

With the recent announcements of expanded vaccine eligibility in New York and other states, and increasing vaccine production, it is likely that all members of our community will be able to obtain vaccination sometime this spring or summer. Accordingly, Cornell intends to require vaccination for students returning to Ithaca, Geneva, and Cornell Tech campuses for the fall semester. Medical and religious exemptions will be accommodated, but the expectation will be that our campuses and classrooms will overwhelmingly consist of vaccinated individuals, greatly reducing the risk of infection for all. Individuals who are not able to obtain vaccination prior to arrival for the fall semester, or whose vaccination is not recognized by New York state, will be expected to be vaccinated as soon after their arrival as possible, and Cornell is investigating ways to facilitate this process.

It is critical for the university to have accurate data on the extent of community protection from COVID-19 in order to make informed decisions about safe campus operations. We have now established an easy way for members of the Cornell community to register their vaccination status through the Daily Check using the COVID-19 Proof of Vaccination tool. Beginning April 15, such registration will be required of all Cornell students, faculty, and staff once they have completed the dose schedule for their vaccination. Once we have better data about the degree of community protection that has been achieved, we will offer additional details regarding full campus reactivation in a safe and responsible manner.

Plans for Fall 2021 Instruction

Although the current pace of vaccination is promising, uncertainty about the prevailing conditions in the fall remains. While we predict very high levels of immunity, we are planning for several possibilities:

Herd Immunity

With the increasing availability of vaccines and the vaccination requirement for returning students, we anticipate that our campuses will operate in the fall under conditions in which the degree of immunity is sufficient to prevent the spread of virus within the community (herd immunity). Although New York state regulations and CDC guidelines are yet to be released, with mandatory student vaccination we anticipate that this is the most likely scenario. If the science indicates that the extent of immunity of our community provides for safe campus operation, and relevant regulations allow for in-person classroom instruction, classes normally taught in person will return to that mode of instruction, without any routinely scheduled online option. All members of our community – faculty, staff and students – should begin to plan for this return to in-person teaching and learning in the fall of 2021. We will also continue to monitor visa and travel issues that might affect our returning international students and we will implement adjustments to address their needs as much as possible.

High Levels of Immunity

Modeling by Professor Peter Frazier’s group indicates that the risk of in-class transmission in fully occupied classes will be equivalent to that of de-densified classrooms as long as vaccination rates of students, faculty, and staff are above 50%, seating adjustments are made, and students and faculty wear standard quality masks. We will continue to track vaccination levels, evaluate the science, and carefully monitor CDC and New York state guidelines; if it is determined that we have not achieved full herd immunity, but nearly all faculty and staff and the majority of students are immunized, we will begin the semester with normal in-person instruction without a routinely provided online option, but with enhanced safety measures (e.g., mandatory high-quality mask wearing, special seating, additional ventilation, surveillance testing, etc.). Reasonable medical accommodations for students who are unable to return for in-person instruction will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Lower Levels of Immunity

Although we do not expect this to be the case, if less than 50% of our student population has been vaccinated by the beginning of the semester, we will begin the semester in de-densified classrooms, with a mix of instruction modes similar to the current semester, until critical thresholds have been met. Once sufficient herd immunity is reached, we will fully institute in-person classroom instruction across all campuses.

In the coming days, we will add the vaccination status of the Ithaca campus community to the COVID-19 Dashboard. Additionally, we will hold a virtual Town Hall open to all members of the Ithaca, Geneva, and Cornell Tech campuses on Thursday, April 8, from noon to 1 p.m to answer questions about our plans for the fall semester. Questions may be submitted in advance via this Qualtrics survey.

Thanks to all for your continued efforts to create a safe learning and working environment during these extraordinary times.


Martha E. Pollack

Michael I. Kotlikoff