Cornell students are scrambling after the university reported hundreds of COVID-19 cases and finally opted to move finals online while canceling a ceremony it had planned to recognize its December graduates.
“It’s kind of feeling like people are dropping like flies a little bit,” a sophomore at the school, Maral Asik, 19, told The Daily Beast. “Like testing positive or getting contact traced.”
The university moved its main campus “Alert Level Red” for the first time in three semesters on Tuesday and President Martha Pollack issued a letter to students announcing that the university would move final exams to an online format, while canceling events and encouraging students to avoid nonessential contact with others before their return home.
“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,” Pollack wrote.
The outbreak has sent shockwaves through the Cornell community, which boasts a vaccination rate of 97 percent, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.
According to Pollack, while none of Cornell’s infected students have suffered severe illness, signs of Omicron’s higher transmissibility could lead to “exponential growth” in cases.
Asik said she now knows “at least five or six people” who have tested positive, and still others who are “checking the testing portal every ten minutes for results,” but it’s been overwhelming to figure out which friends have been infected.
It’s become routine over the past week to find herself tangled in conversations about testing status: “It’s been like ‘Oh, did you hear this person tested?’ Or like on someone’s social media story they’ll post like ‘Oh, I just tested positive. If I’ve interacted with you in the past 24 hours, just like be careful.’”
Asik said she hurried to the drugstore for an at-home test kit last Wednesday when her suitemate tested positive. Another friend will be quarantining for two weeks and staying on campus through Christmas after receiving a positive test earlier this week, she said.
The rattled college sophomore said she’s hoping to stave off a case herself until her parents drive down to pick her up from school. She had initially planned to take a bus home, but that now feels “too risky.”
Asik said that before the university moved exams online, school officials had appeared to shift responsibility for the spike onto students for meeting for events and social gatherings before the spike.
“It kind of felt like they were blaming students for the spread of COVID,” she said. “When they were having 1,500-person lectures still, and were planning on having exams with 1,500 people in the room.”
Before the spike was announced last week, Asik said she had learned at least “two or three times” that she had been in a car with someone who later tested positive. She plans to take daily COVID tests until she returns home and is frightened by the idea of not getting home at all if she tests positive in the coming days.
Until her parents arrive, the 19-year-old is leaning on a pod of two friends from her dorm who socialize with just each other, getting takeout from the dining hall to eat in the dorm kitchen together. Asik is otherwise largely staying in her room to study for her remaining two finals as the majority of campus— from libraries to gyms—are shut down.
“It just feels like spring semester last year 2.0,” she said, describing a similar shutdown as Delta emerged during her freshman year at UMass Amherst before she transferred to Cornell. “We’ve been through all of this before, it’s just we didn't think that it would happen again.”
Another sophomore at the school, Rory Confino-Pinzon, 19, said he believed the university hadn’t acted quickly enough to move exams online, adding that the surge “scared a lot of us.”
“They sort of failed the student body by not being cautious enough,” he said. “Not only did it add an immense amount of stress and pressure for us as students, it really just prevented us from being safer.”
Confino-Pinzon, who drove four hours home to New York City on Sunday, said that his final week on campus had riddled him and friends who were concerned and “not wanting to get sick but not knowing if we had already been exposed.”
“I was concerned that I was going to get the virus, not know it, and then just bring it home to my dad who has lupus and if he got COVID it would be bad for him,” he said. He was relieved to test negative on Thursday but has friends who haven’t been as lucky. At least one friend who was supposed to fly home for the holidays isn’t sure if she will be able to after a friend tested positive, he said.
Both Asik and Confino-Pinzon pointed fingers at students heading back to campus after the Thanksgiving holiday for the spike, noting that there had not been arrival testing designated for students by the university.
“If I had to guess I’d say that’s probably why we have a spike right now, is people bringing back illness from wherever they were before,” Asik said, adding that instead of getting tested immediately after she got back to campus she received routine surveillance testing—which happens once weekly for most students—after two days of in-person classes.
“I think we’re going to be the first of many to just have a lot of positive cases of schools that are testing at the same level we are,” Confino-Pinzon said.
According to Pollack, the university’s COVID-19 testing lab found evidence of the “highly contagious” Omicron variant in a “significant number” of positive student samples.
While it remains unclear how often cases of the Omicron variant lead to hospitalizations or deaths, other colleges are taking similar steps.
Princeton University announced that, beginning Dec. 16, it will host final exams online and mandate boosters for all students, faculty, and staff in advance of the spring semester.
A growing pool of other institutions—including Middlebury College in Vermont, DePaul University in Chicago and Southern New Hampshire University—said this month they would temporarily move to remote instruction.