Cornell president: In-person fall classes will be safer for our students than all virtual semester

Key Points
  • Cornell's decision to reopen its Ithaca, New York, campus this fall was based on many students' intentions to return to the town anyway, university President Martha Pollack told CNBC.
  • "If we are having residential instruction, we can mandate testing, and tracing and isolation, on a very aggressive regular basis," Pollack said.
  • Cornell plans to spend $3 million to $5 million to implement semester-long testing plan for students, staff and faculty.
Cornell University president makes the case for reopening in the fall

Cornell University President Martha Pollack told CNBC on Thursday that holding in-person classes this fall during the coronavirus pandemic is safer for her school's students than opting for all virtual instruction.

Pollack said the university conducted student surveys and spoke with off-campus landlords in Ithaca, New York — where Cornell is located — and found that up to 50% of Cornell's students planned to be in the town in the fall no matter what.

"If we are having residential instruction, we can mandate testing, and tracing and isolation, on a very aggressive regular basis," Pollack said in a "Squawk Box" interview. "We will be much less able to do that with students who are online and just happen to be living in Ithaca, as opposed to Chicago or Atlanta or wherever."

Cornell is the latest university to announce its plans for the fall, following upheaval to spring semesters across the U.S. as the Covid-19 outbreak prompted a switch to remote instruction. Decisions about the fall have implications for students and staff, as well as for the financial outlook for schools and the communities they are in

The fall semester at Cornell is scheduled to begin Sept. 2 and will consist of both in-person and online classes, according to a letter to the university community from Pollack. Students will have to wear face masks during classes, which have fewer people than normal and have socially distanced seating.

Pollack stressed on CNBC that Cornell's decision to reopen its Ithaca campus — while still holding a hybrid mix of in-person and online classes — was best for the university, based on many students' intentions to return to the town anyway. 

"I want to be clear, it's safer for our students at Cornell. We did the study with regard to the conditions in Ithaca," she said. 'It doesn't necessarily apply elsewhere, although the methodology could be used elsewhere."

Cornell University.
Kenneth C. Zirkel | Getty Images

Cornell will test its more than 20,000 students upon their arrival to campus and then once a week during the semester, Pollack said. The university will conduct the weekly tests using a strategy known as pooled testing. It involves collecting individual samples from a group of people, but mixing them together and running one test, Pollack said, noting the Food and Drug Administration recently issued guidance on the practice.

In Cornell's case, it will run 10 samples as one test. If the test comes back negative, all students will be cleared. But if it's positive, then all the individual samples will be screened in isolation to determine who was infected with the coronavirus. 

"That obviously saves a lot of costs," said Pollack, who added that Cornell estimates its semester-long testing plan for students, staff and faculty — about 35,000 people combined — will carry a price tag of $3 million to $5 million. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stresses the importance of universities having robust testing in place, if they choose to hold in-person classes. In a guidance to higher-education administrators, the agency warns that "residence halls, laboratory facilities, and lecture rooms may be settings with the potential for rapid and pervasive spread" of the coronavirus. 

Pollack said Cornell believes its plan to have frequent testing will allow it to catch Covid-19 infections early and then implement public health containment strategies such as contact tracing and isolation. The university is looking into using Ithaca hotels as quarantine spaces, she added. 

The U.S. is facing a surge of Covid-19 cases, particularly in states across the South and West. Young people are believed to be making up a larger share of new infections, and in response, the governors of Texas and Arizona closed down bars again, based on the view that they were sources of outbreaks. 

Pollack said she is aware that college students will likely hold parties. She said while Cornell cannot control students' behavior, the university hopes to "influence it to some extent." 

"We're going to really try and create a community of caring, but of course we do know there will be parties. There will be violations," she said, adding that Cornell would "have even less ability" to control partying if it opted for an entirely virtual semester. 

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