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Why Cornell Will Reopen in the Fall / Wall Street Journal 1 week 4 hours ago #391568

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Why Cornell Will Reopen in the Fall

Students will return to Ithaca in any case. On campus, we can track and isolate Covid cases.

By Michael I. Kotlikoff and Martha E. Pollack

June 30, 2020




Colleges and universities in the U.S. face a difficult choice in the coming weeks. Some have decided that closing their campuses and offering online classes is the safest option. For others, the safer and more responsible alternative may be to allow students to return while putting in place a comprehensive virus-screening program that minimizes the risk of transmission. Contingent on New York state’s approval, we will be opening Cornell for residential instruction this fall.

Consider two scenarios. University A decides to reopen. For the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, it institutes a screening program to identify asymptomatic students infected with the novel coronavirus and prevent them from spreading it by repeated testing and isolation. The school also monitors symptoms daily, restricts group sizes, modifies classrooms and dorms, secures extensive quarantine capacity, restricts travel, and imposes requirements for masks and social distancing.

University B decides that this is too risky and chooses to play it safe. The school doesn’t reopen for residential instruction this fall and opts instead to teach all courses online. It takes cautious steps to open for selected professional or graduate programs and research efforts, but doesn’t implement the complex process of screening thousands of undergraduates and modifying the learning environment for social distancing.

Surprisingly, epidemiological modeling done by a group led by Cornell Prof. Peter Frazier suggests that despite playing it safe, sometime during the fall University B may well experience markedly worse health outcomes in its community, while University A will have more effectively safeguarded public health.

For many universities, closing the campus to undergraduates is probably not the safest option—notwithstanding concerns that college students may not adhere to public-health guidelines. That’s because at many colleges, students will gather on and around campuses whether classes are held in person or online.

At colleges where many students live off-campus in leased apartments, students are likely to return to their college town or city even if education is online. Our surveys indicate that as many as 50% of undergraduates plan to return to Ithaca this fall, whether or not Cornell is open for residential instruction. If we are fully online, they will live together and interact free from the virus screening or behavioral requirements that would be in effect if the university were reopened. Students who don’t live in our dormitories are largely beyond the reach of campus regulations. Since evidence suggests that most infections among those of college age occur without symptoms, students returning to small college towns, or to student neighborhoods adjoining campuses in urban centers, will have little reason to seek testing on their own and will mix freely with local residents.

At West Point, when healthy cadets returned to campus for commencement ceremonies, approximately 1.5% tested positive for the virus. And at Kansas State, eight out of 130 returning student athletes tested positive. It is thus highly risky not to test and, as needed, isolate students—a large number of whom, remember, will return to our community no matter what we decide about reopening. Mr. Frazier’s study suggests that in the purely online case, where Cornell’s ability to impose public-health requirements is weak and students in the community aren’t regularly tested, the number of infected people will grow to approximately two to 10 times what it would be over the course of a residential semester. More important, the models predict that many more people would develop serious forms of the disease.

Cornell is far from the only American university with a large share of its students living off campus. Like Ithaca, many college towns are relatively isolated with low local prevalence of Covid-19. But while urban colleges and universities likely contend with a higher local viral prevalence, the return of so many students living off campus and interacting with the broader community may produce a similar elevated risk.

Mr. Frazier’s model shows that for schools like ours, efficient virus screening of a residential student population as a part of a comprehensive disease surveillance program is the safest way forward. Our modeling shows that this testing must be done early and often, but since universities contain thousands or tens of thousands of students, testing every student is impractical and cost-prohibitive. An essential part of an effective screening strategy, then, is pooled testing, which involves combining samples from many students so that only those pools that contain a positive sample need to be individually tested to identify the infected person.

Pooled testing can decrease the number of laboratory tests required by 10-fold or more. Absent this critical and longstanding method of surveillance testing, Cornell couldn’t test our 24,000 students at a high enough frequency. Moreover, by testing pools and then individually retesting positive pools, the problem of false positives, which hampers testing of large populations with low prevalence, is reduced, although large-scale screening will inevitably result in some uninfected individuals undergoing quarantine because of a false result.


The Food and Drug Administration recently issued new guidelines that enable pooling of multiple individual samples, thus establishing the necessary conditions for rigorous screening strategies designed to identify those most likely to spread the virus and refer them for individual diagnostic testing.

As universities like Cornell make difficult decisions about the fall semester, it’s important to consider the risks of not reopening alongside the risks of opening. Epidemiological modeling suggests, perhaps counterintuitively, that if a university is prepared to put in place a comprehensive virus screening program followed up with supportive quarantine and isolation—in addition to other effective public health measures—reopening may be the more responsible option.

Dr. Kotlikoff and Ms. Pollack are, respectively, provost and president of Cornell University.
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