Guiding principles will help us navigate ‘new normal’
Last week, I sent you a message sharing two lessons we’ve learned at Cornell from our experiences in this pandemic so far, which would continue to guide us in the year ahead. One was to respect knowledge: making our decisions based on science, ready to change course when the evidence indicated we should. The other was to be kind: making the choices that would keep our entire community safe and moving forward in our mission.
We’re in a very different position now than we were in last year, facing decisions that are in many ways even more complex. Our vaccination rate provides our community with a strong layer of protection: among the more than 250 students who have tested positive so far this semester, none are seriously ill, and none have been hospitalized. But we know that no vaccines are perfect, we are challenged with a far more transmissible variant, and our community includes those who are immunocompromised, those who live with household members at risk, and those with children under 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated. Many of us are anxious about our own well-being, or the well-being of those we love.
Our students, along with many of our faculty, have clearly said that they want to return to in-person instruction, and we have been looking forward for many months to a vibrant, fully active fall. To achieve that goal, we rely on our aggressive testing program—as a result of which we now have dozens of students in isolation and unable to attend class. Yet it is precisely that aggressive testing program—one in which we test not only every formally defined contact of a positive case, but everyone who might have been a contact—that enables us to contain the chain of transmission, protect the vulnerable, and gather data to inform future decision-making.
This semester is, for all of us, yet another stage of “new normal”: one in which we maintain our commitment to respect knowledge and each other, while dedicating ourselves to meeting new challenges as they arise. That means, for example, working together to keep isolated and quarantined students connected with their classes and progressing academically. It means again being creative and embracing technology, using Zoom rooms, crowdsourcing notes, and recording lectures. It means continuing our commitment to finding individualized accommodations for those with disabilities and medical concerns, and working toward flexible support that can include online learning in those circumstances when it best serves student, faculty, and program interests.
A year and a half into this pandemic, we know there is no map, and we know we will need to continue to adapt. At this point, I can envision three potential outcomes for this semester:
The best outcome is that over the next few weeks, the number of infections on campus decreases to the point where we are able to return to green status, loosening restrictions on gatherings and other activities. We might even be able to reduce the frequency of testing if the levels of transmission are so low that testing is required only to assure us that the situation remains stable. The best way to achieve this is with the tools we already know work: vaccination, vigilant masking, keeping activities outdoors, regular surveillance testing, and contact tracing/isolation.
A second possible outcome is that the semester continues as it’s begun, with higher rates of infection than we saw last year, but little to no severe illness and little to no transmission within the classroom or in other structured campus activities. That will certainly mean significant stress on our community as we manage and support large numbers of students in isolation, but it may be the only way to balance our goal of providing in-person education with keeping the community as healthy as possible.
The third, and worst, outcome would be a continued rise in infections—to the point where we cannot support isolation, or where we see significant transmission in classroom and other official campus settings with the potential for severe illness. Should we reach that point, we would need to implement additional restrictions, up to and including having all students quarantine in place and moving all courses online, or even shutting the campus down as we did in March of 2020. This is not an outcome any of us want—but we will continue to be guided by the science, and to do what is necessary to protect our community.
Many factors could shape the year ahead, including the approval of vaccines for children under 12, or the emergence of an even more infectious new variant, or changes in vaccine efficacy over time. Many experts now believe that the coronavirus will become endemic, and we will need to adjust to and live with its risks, just as we live with many other risks in our lives. Our task, as an academic community that is also a community of belonging, is not to try to find our way back to the world we left behind, but to find new ways forward in the world we live in now—relying on knowledge, and choosing, always, to be kind.
For my part, what I can promise you is this: that we will abide by our guiding principles in this newest of “new normals,” and we will be open and transparent with all of you as we navigate this path.
Martha E. Pollack