Cornell Students Left ‘Panicked’ and ‘Exhausted’ by Campus Shutdown

  • Cornell University shut down and moved final exams online Tuesday amid a COVID-19 spike.
  • The change has left attendees feeling frustrated and nervous, two students told Insider.
  • “Many of us are frustrated by poor communication and clear lack of planning from Cornell,” Rebecca Harrison said.

The Cornell University community is “panicked” in the wake of an abrupt campus shutdown amid an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases, students told Insider.

In the middle of final exams week at the Ivy League institution on Tuesday, the administration announced that its Ithaca campus would close and exams would move online effective immediately amid a “rapid spread” of the virus. It is the first time since the pandemic began that the university moved to “alert level red,” which indicates high risk, according to The Cornell Daily Sun.

Two students told Insider that the sudden disruption, though not completely unexpected, has left the community anxious.

“Many students…are simply exhausted,” Rebecca Harrison, a 2014 undergrad alumna and current PhD candidate said over email. “Many of us are frustrated by poor communication and clear lack of planning from Cornell, especially when we came back to campus after Thanksgiving.”

Cases have been steadily rising on campus since the start of December, according to the university’s COVID tracker. But last weekend saw a significant jump of nearly 300 new cases, prompting the school to move to “yellow alert” on Friday.

Still, even after the university noted the increased danger, students said they were told they would be expected to sit for in-person exams this week at 50 percent capacity, even as rumors spread of on-campus quarantine capacity reaching its limit.

Shivali Halabe, a senior computer science major, said on-campus student residents who tested positive for the virus throughout the majority of the semester were being quarantined at the university’s on-campus hotel.

But as cases spiked in recent days, Halabe said students who tested positive – as well as some resident advisors – reported that on-campus students who were sick with the virus were being told to quarantine in their dorm rooms, even if they lived with roommates who had not tested positive for the virus.

One Twitter user described her experience testing positive on campus, saying she received an email that said she should quarantine in her room, despite sharing a washroom with floormates.

Harrison, too, said she heard similar rumblings. Throughout different points in the semester, the university’s online COVID-19 dashboard kept track of “quarantine capacity,” she said.

“I don’t recall it ever suggesting that we ever had more than like 150 or 200 spaces,” Harrison told Insider. “I don’t see how they could possibly NOT have an excessive number of students quarantining in dorms with shared spaces.”

The university’s quarantine space, however, was only available to students living on campus, according to students. Those who reside in apartments or houses off-campus were told to isolate in their personal rooms.

A spokesperson for the university did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment.

All semester, Cornell students have been required to get tested every week, Halabe said. The university published those daily numbers online, which is how students started to realize case numbers were on the rise in recent weeks.

Students cited Thanksgiving break travel, an influx of end-of-year activities, and the rise of the Omicron variant as factors in the recent spike.

The 276 cases reported on Tuesday put the campus total at 903 student cases this week, according to the tracker – an all-time record number of infections that prompted university officials to shut down campus facilities and move all exams online.

Some students expressed frustration with the university’s handling of the growing crisis.

“Today’s announcement was the first communication we had from Administration since they doubled-down on in-person exams on Saturday,” Harrison told Insider. “For many of us, I think the bigger surprise wasn’t that we moved to ‘Alert Level Red’ and were encouraged to leave, but rather that there was no meaningful intervention sooner that might have prevented this.”

Halabe said students were already stressed about their finals over the weekend, after the university confirmed they would take place in person, despite rising cases. “Students were told that even if you’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive, you should still be going to your finals,” she said.

But now, the sudden shutdown has left the community even more anxious as professors scramble to transfer already-printed tests online, oftentimes for classes of hundreds.

“On a campus notorious for high academic stress, the chaos this has added to the middle of final exams is having a profound impact on not only students, but also instructors,” Harrison said. “The mental health toll is also alarming.”

And as students start to head home following the announcement, the future remains uncertain.

“We don’t really know what next semester’s going to look like,” Halabe said.

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