KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Good afternoon. My name is Katherine McComas. And I am the University's vice provost for Engagement and Land-Grant affairs. And it's my pleasure to welcome you to today's town hall meeting for faculty and staff, our first in 2021. Who knows how many there will be in 2021?
But it is great to have everybody here in our continued efforts to provide you the opportunity to hear directly from the senior leadership on questions that you are most concerned about. And so without taking further ado so that we have ample time to answer your questions, I'd like to turn the floor over to our provost, Mike Kotlikoff.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Thanks, Katherine. First of all, welcome back, everybody. I hope everyone had a great break. I know this was not a normal break. But I hope people had a chance to wind down a little bit and spend some time, perhaps, with family.
I want to start by thanking everyone for their efforts since COVID-19 emerged on our campus in March and also to call on our collective experience and efforts to continue the practices and extraordinary commitment that kept us safe last semester.
I've received many, many letters from faculty, from staff, from students, from parents, from community members praising what we did together over the last six months. It relied on the work of an extraordinarily dedicated group of people, many of whom were working behind the scenes, nights and long weekends, while juggling their own stresses and health issues.
And it also, of course, relied on the collective actions of all of us, of our entire community, our students, faculty, and staff who defied conventional wisdom and, for the most part, prevented spread of the virus through our community. Now, I have to say that I wish it were otherwise. But we need to renew those efforts and that commitment for the coming semester because, of course as we all know, in some ways the situation is worse than the fall.
The prevalence currently is higher in our community and will be higher in our students coming back. We have the emergence of a high-transmission variant, the so-called UK variant. We all have COVID fatigue. And it's the winter. So we don't have the advantage of the mild fall that we had when we started instruction.
But I would say that we also have the confidence that what we did worked. And we know how to make this work on campus. And I want to now talk a little bit about what we've done to make sure that we have a safe spring semester.
First and foremost, we're again relying on the science. Peter Frazier's group, which modeled our situation for the fall, has repeated the epidemiological modeling and considered the altered conditions that I've talked about, the higher prevalence and the potential higher transmission rate of the virus.
His results suggest again that transmission can be controlled on campus. Although, we will likely see more cases than the extraordinarily low number of cases we saw in the fall. His results also indicate again that our safest option is to return students to campus while testing them comprehensively.
The modeling suggests certain modifications that we should be doing in testing. And Gary Koretzky, following me, will outline some of those modifications. But for the most part, we'll be relying on what was successful in the fall-- comprehensive surveillance testing, identifying infected individuals early, isolating them, and quarantining those that are contacts, rigorous social distancing and mask wearing, de-densified classrooms, monitoring behavior, and allowing for remote instruction.
We're also, of course, now seeing, as you can see from the dashboard, more infections in staff and faculty, almost entirely owing to exposure outside of work. We're seeing very little transmission on campus again. Mary will talk a little bit about this and modifications made to ensure that we continue to have limited campus transmission amongst our staff.
So what's going to happen next? Mainly starting this weekend we're having students return to our dorms. We'll have them returning to our dorms in phases.
If they come from noncontiguous states, they're required to be tested three days before traveling to Ithaca. Then they'll be tested upon entry, go directly into quarantine, stay there for four days, be tested on the fourth day, and, if they're negative, be released directly into our surveillance testing program.
There's been strong planning from Student and Campus Life on dorm occupancy, quarantine and isolation space. I want to particularly call out and thank Pat Wynn for her planning in this area. And there's contingency plans for weather, if we have a snowstorm when students arrive, et cetera, et cetera.
Student Health is prepared, has contingency plans for dealing with students. They also have a new point-of-care test capability within Student Health so they can immediately determine whether students who have symptoms actually have COVID-19. And then Facilities has worked for continuity of operations and have lots of plans to make sure that we continue to operate the campus despite staff infections.
I want to say a few words about vaccinations. I know this is on everybody's mind. There's a lot of concerns and many questions about what Cornell can do to facilitate getting our community protected.
We want everybody in our community to be vaccinated as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there's not much that we can do at this point. We've applied to be a point of distribution, or a POD, which would allow us to receive vaccine directly and distribute it.
We do know, however, that if we are approved to be a POD at any time soon, it's likely to be what is called an open POD, where we would be a distributor of vaccine for the entire community, anyone that's deemed eligible by the CDC guidelines and state guidelines. But of course, as we all know, right now the current situation is that eligibility for vaccination far exceeds vaccine supply.
And so we're in a situation where we're encouraging all eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible. But this is going to require patience while we slowly receive vaccine and then you get appointments to be able to get vaccinated.
Mary has checked repeatedly with the state on eligibility for the in-person teaching criterion. We've tried to be as inclusive as possible for people who are involved directly in teaching interactions with students. And she'll provide an update on that.
Finally, let me just say I wish that we could influence the criteria for eligibility from the state and allow individuals that are in direct contact with students-- our dining staff, many other staff that staff our residence facilities but don't teach. We wish we could get criteria changed so they would be eligible. That is not in our control.
Finally, there's been a lot of work done to try to improve the student experience this spring, from technology enhancements to technical support that's been added to help faculty in their in-person teaching and using the technology. Lisa Nishii will summarize these efforts and also give an overview on where we are in teaching both in person and remote. So with that, let me turn it over to Gary, who will describe a little bit about our testing modifications. Gary.
GARY KORETZKY: Great. So thanks so much, Mike. And thank all of you for joining us today. As Mike mentioned, we're really looking forward to the spring semester, welcoming back our students, our faculty, and staff.
We're all feeling really good that there's a vaccine. And we're feeling really stressed that it's not available to everybody yet. And hopefully that will change soon.
I just wanted to say a few things in retrospect. The success of the fall, I think in many of our views, was really due to three things. And they're all equally important.
First, there was an effort that was made by so many people to plan and implement a strategy that was based on the best science at the time. Second, the strategy only works if people work together. And the collaboration of everybody in the community was amazing. And it really was instrumental in our success in the fall.
And thirdly, and I can't stress this enough, we had a plan that we knew shouldn't be static. It was a dynamic plan. We put together committees. They looked at every case that was emerging on campus. And as conditions changed, our strategies changed.
And I think we've talked about a number of those things. And really the purpose of today is to talk about looking forward now to the spring. So as we were imagining that, we appreciated that there are significant changes in the environment.
As Mike said, there's a higher local prevalence of virus. There's the emergence of the new viral strains. The winter weather changes people's behavior. And of course, we've been doing this now for 10 months, and there's a lot of fatigue.
So to consider these changes, actually what we did is that we re-impaneled the committee that was so effective in the spring and the summer. And we asked that committee to evaluate what we did, to think about the future.
The committee met more than a dozen times between Thanksgiving and the winter break. And we considered a number of scenarios. And then we put Peter Frazier back to work. He modeled many, many things like he did in the spring. And with that effort, there are a number of recommendations that were made. And I just want to give you a high level of what those are right now.
There's a Cornell Chronicle story that I think just came out that talks a little bit about some of these things. And of course, we're always available for questions, comments, suggestions.
So first and foremost, we want to, and we feel it's critical, to retain what worked. That's adherence to the public health measures that we've talked about so often, completion of the daily check, frequent surveillance testing, and testing for cause if you're sick. If you're not feeling well, you don't go to a surveillance site. If you're a faculty or staff, you call Cayuga Medicine. If you're a student, you call Cornell Health.
And we will continue our adaptive and our supplementary testing. We're going to continue to discuss and learn from every case that we encounter. And we'll continue to work closely with Tompkins County Health and Cayuga Health Systems.
And beyond these, there are some several specific things that we'll be implementing this spring. First, we're going to have a quicker turnaround time for samples in the Cornell COVID laboratory.
So we recognize that a test isn't really done until the result is known and we can act on that result. So we're going to do that faster. And everybody can help us by getting tested early in the day if at all possible.
We've instituted point-of-care testing by Cornell Health for symptomatic students-- again, knowing sooner whether or not somebody has got COVID. There's going to be greater oversight over travel. We know that travel's a risk. We really want to encourage travel only when absolutely necessary. There'll be greater oversight.
We're going to actually increase testing frequency for some groups. Some will have testing frequency three times a week. We're going to do a quicker assessment of potential workplace contacts. There's a group of volunteers that are working with the Cornell COVID Response team. And they've already started their work. And they're making a big difference.
We want to really, really encourage individuals to limit the number of interactions that they have, both on campus and off campus. So for example, if you're taking your break when you're working, take your break with the same person for your noon break, for your 4 o'clock break instead of spreading it out. We think that interactions and limiting interactions will be key.
We'd like everybody to seek information. There's a COVID website. Please use it. There's a Tompkins County Health Department website. The situation is fluid. And the pandemic is going to change. And we really want everybody to stay informed.
And the last thing I'll say, and then I'm going to turn this over to Mary, is to encourage everybody to be vaccinated when you're able to be vaccinated. When you're eligible and when you can make an appointment, that's what's going to end the pandemic.
We know it's hard. And we're really, really comfortable with the fact that we can recommend this strongly. But we also recognize that this is going to take weeks and months for everybody to be vaccinated. Maybe I'll turn this over now to Mary to make a few other comments.
MARY GEORGE OPPERMAN: Thank you, Gary. And thank you all so much. When this started 10 months ago, I frankly had no idea how long we would be in the situation that we're in.
We understand that many of you are worn out dealing with the stress of the impacts of the pandemic on you and your families and friends. Some of you are juggling child care, school-aged children. Others of you have reported feeling very isolated, not being able to see your family who is in other places, and therefore feeling isolated and alone.
Staff, faculty, and students have lost loved ones to this virus. As the provost indicated, we're all growing weary from the pandemic safety measures even though we continue to abide by them. And I want to thank you all for doing that.
For those of you who manage others, a personal request. Please reach out, and check in on your folks, whether they're remote or here on campus. Give them time privately with you to share how they're doing. We do have people who are really struggling.
We continue to require all on-campus employees to complete the daily check and adhere to a testing schedule. I know we've been doing this for a long time. But I need to just reinforce the importance of both.
Please don't go on automatic pilot. Answer those daily check questions each time you're coming to campus. And think about them before you push the button. It's the best way to try to avoid a contact up on campus, as is the testing.
The-- and we've referred to this-- but the Tompkins County Health Department just issued an advisory noting that over the past seven days, 276 positive cases have been identified in the community. Now more than ever careful adherence to our safety measures is important for each of you, for one another here on campus, and for your family and friends.
So we are asking that each of you be very careful in any setting where you're in close contact with others. Please limit your contact. And please keep on your masks.
We ask that you be especially careful when you're eating or drinking around others on campus. Whenever possible, go outdoors. It's been actually a really nice winter. It's been mild. And we've had some really nice days.
If you're indoors, please stay away. Stay at least six feet away from one another when you take off your mask to eat or have something to drink. I understand and appreciate that these restrictions are exhausting. But given the increasing number of cases, redoubling our efforts now is more important than ever.
So just a quick note on vaccines. I want to acknowledge to all of you that this has been a very fluid process. As the state determines eligibility criteria, we are doing our best to share what we know. New York State is currently in phase one of eligibility-- so health care workers, emergency workers, those under the age of 65, among others, and then those who provide in-person instruction.
The state has given us limited guidance as to how to interpret what is meant by in-person instruction. But we continue to work with our partners to understand it. I appreciate that many of you have regular contact with students. The eligibility that New York State has set is based on instruction of Cornell students.
We know that many of you are eager to be vaccinated. And we appreciate the ways in which you're thinking about your work related to this in-person criteria. We're reviewing your request as quickly as we can and doing our best to guide decisions based on what you tell us.
We're also very grateful that you're candid about your roles and that you are not contouring your description of what you do in order to be made eligible because we know that you know right now eligibility far outpaces available vaccines. I'm incredibly grateful to, though not surprised by, the care with which you're approaching this issue.
We continue to talk with our partners in New York State about eligibility overall, as you've heard. They know that we believe all of our on-campus staff and faculty should be vaccinated as soon as possible. We will continue to share information with you as we get it and remain hopeful that, once vaccine distribution increases, eligibility criteria will expand.
And then, finally, thanks to all of you. Thank you to those who have volunteered to help with tasks and projects that we couldn't have imagined 10 months ago. Your help and your approach as a community continues to be a source of pride for me. And I'm so grateful for all you have done and will continue to do. Let me turn this over to Lisa Nishii.
LISA NISHII: Thank you, Mary. So I'm going to just give a little bit of an update on where we stand with spring semester planning, that is for teaching, and to just say a little bit about changes and additional resources that we have.
So compared to the fall semester, I would say we're in good shape. It was great to be able to pre-enroll students in December because now we have preliminary enrollment data to be able to use to do things like assign classes to classrooms and schedule exams while avoiding conflicts and things like that.
I would say that we have approximately 35%, 36% of classes have an in-person component compared to about the 26% that we ended up with in the fall. Over the last two weeks or so, we have received requests from instructors who wanted to switch from online to in-person. And we've just finished processing those requests. And so we will be releasing the classroom assignments over the weekend. They should become visible within the course roster.
One of the biggest challenges that we heard about in the fall was from faculty instructors who were teaching in person with a simultaneous online component, that is students participating via Zoom. And so we've done a number of things to try to provide additional support to instructors in this position.
So in the spring, you can expect to see improved instructor stations that are equipped with an extra monitor so that faculty can see online students in a gallery view while they're teaching. We've set up Zoom Room instead of Zoom Meeting in classrooms that will be used in this way, which will make it easier for instructors to toggle between different inputs while they're teaching.
It'll be much easier to switch between slides on a laptop and a document, camera, or video, whatever it might be. So that should make things easier for instructors.
We'll have improved audio in select classrooms that will be assigned to classes that have a lot of discussion embedded in the class format. We'll have additional camera equipment that will help capture blackboards and whiteboards, as well as improved digital annotation and whiteboarding features that instructors can use.
We'll also have classroom assistants assigned to faculty who are teaching simultaneously in person and to Zoom participants. These classroom assistants will help with things like getting the technology set up for the way the instructor needs it for their class. And they can also help monitor Zoom chat and other things that are challenging within that classroom format.
Instructors who are listed as teaching in person with or without an online mirror or Zoom participants should have received an email from me about two weeks ago asking you to answer a number of questions about your technology needs. We're using that input to then assign classroom assistance as needed and set up the technology in the classrooms.
Next week, the faculty should be receiving a follow-up email indicating when you can expect to be introduced to your classroom assistant and also with some details about how and when you can actually visit your classrooms. So IT teams throughout the University are working hard to install more technology. And so the rooms won't be ready for visits until the week of February 1. That's the week before classes.
If you did not receive an email from me but you are teaching in person and would like to be able to share your technology needs, first check your inbox to make sure there isn't an email from me. But then, if you could contact email@example.com, we can get you set up.
A few reminders about the spring semester. Please keep in mind that, as we saw in the fall, there will be a spike. We expect a spike in cases when students are coming back. We're doing all of that arrival testing.
So be prepared to have students in quarantine and isolation. This is also, of course, for classes that are being taught in person only. You'll need to provide a way for students to keep up.
One change that we're introducing for this semester that you should also know about is that in cases when we have students who repeatedly don't respond to our repeated requests, attempts to get in touch with them about missed tests, or other violations of the behavioral compact will lose access not just to campus facilities but also to Canvas. They will be told exactly what they need to do to reinstate their access to Canvas and that there's nothing that faculty can do to override that. So it's meant to get their attention. But we hope that faculty won't get requests from students about this.
We've collected data, as you may know, from instructors last semester but also from students about their learning experiences. And we learned a lot of really useful things from students. And we've put together tip sheets by instruction mode that we'll be sharing. We'll include links in the Dean of Faculty Monday message on Monday. And the information is also going to be available on the CTI website.
One last thing I'll say is that we learned a lot from faculty, also, when we collected data. That information about things that have worked in the classroom has been incorporated into workshops that are ongoing right now on what works.
And also, we'll be launching an online platform. It'll actually be a Canvas course that will facilitate information sharing among faculty. So it's where you can ask and answer questions about things that are and are not working, perhaps, in the classroom as you continue to teach through this pandemic.
Actually, one last thing. I wanted to remind faculty that if we change from green to yellow alert level, this does not reflect needed changes in operations, like moving classes online. If there's a need to move online, you will of course hear that immediately and directly from us. So please don't assume that that's what a move to yellow might mean for your class. OK, I'm going to stop there, Katherine.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: OK, great. So we'll go into some more Q&A. And just as some background context, we received over five dozen questions ahead of time through our Qualtrics survey. And so the vast majority of those questions were around vaccines. And so we've tried to tee up a lot of those answers in the early overviews by each of our panelists.
I note that there are questions coming into the Q&A link. And please do continue to put your questions in there if you've got additional ones that are not yet being addressed. So now I'd like to go to each of the panelists with some of the questions that we received ahead of time as well as some that are coming up right now.
And, Mike, I'll go right back to you to talk at some of the policy level related issues. And we've gotten a lot of questions. I think you've kind of touched on this. But this question about, will the vaccine be mandatory for Cornell employees and students? Do we envision that?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: It's a great question. We haven't made that decision yet. Of course, one of the things that would be unproductive would be to mandate something that people don't have access to, if there's not a sufficient supply of the vaccine.
We do know that the University has the ability to mandate a vaccination of students and employees under certain conditions, understanding that there will be individuals that cannot be vaccinated. I think we'll make that decision at the appropriate time when there's enough vaccine. And I think that question's a little bit more relevant for the coming fall and questions that we'll be dealing with sometime over the next couple of months as we see what the supply of vaccine is.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks. Another question came up in the Q&A around New York State policy. If you have 100 cases in a two-week period of time, then there is a recommendation or a policy that you have to move remote. Have we any indication that that has changed for the spring?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: We have had some indications. So first, we're still going to report this on the dashboard. We're going to report everything we've reported previously.
And we do have indication from the state that they're really only concerned about transmission on campus. So we're not going to count the positives that result from students coming in already positive. But we will be, and the state will be, tracking positives over a period of time.
The indication that we've gotten is that that 100 over a two-week period is not a fixed number. And there will be a number of conversations that we'll have with the state over that and what the conditions are, how much individual colleges and universities are testing, et cetera. So a bit more to come on that.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks. And I'm wondering if you could, in light of the conversation previously where Lisa talked about if and when the University were ever to go to yellow from green, maybe you could just remind people, Mike, or Gary if it's more appropriate, just the thought process about when Cornell chooses to look at changing that and how that process happens.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, I will just say, and maybe Gary can add, there's a modeling underlying this. And the idea of this is when we start to see transmission on campus and cases rising in a way that we need to inform the community-- first when we go to yellow-- and make sure that we redouble our efforts, social distancing, et cetera.
So we're fairly liberal about when we go to yellow. The idea is to move to yellow when there's any suggestion of concern and to move back slowly so that we're not going back and forth all the time.
And then as we go beyond that to orange and to red, again of course, significantly more concern associated with this. But that's the basic idea to try and give the community a sense of where we are in a crude way and to try and provoke the best kind of behavior based on conditions. I don't know, Gary, do you want to add?
GARY KORETZKY: Yeah, so I'll just add a little bit, Mike. And that is that it's not formulaic completely, that we have guideposts. And there are things that we look at.
And when I say "we," this is a conversation with Martha, with Mike, with Madeline, with the senior leadership of the University. And just so everybody knows, we meet regularly. And we go over what's going on. And so like Mike said, there are parameters that we use-- number of cases that are occurring over time, looking at trends as much as points in time.
And yellow was instituted as a way to just remind ourselves that we really have to be paying attention to these very, very important measures. And as Lisa said, any time that there needs to be a change-- you know, hopefully that won't happen-- in the mode of instruction, that will be very, very widely communicated to all the faculty.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks. And, Gary, since you're here in the spotlight, I'd like to keep you on for a few more questions. There was a question that just came through the Q&A about Cornell's testing. And it references, well, Cornell's testing changed other forms of testing, such as saliva testing. I guess, can you talk us through what the plans are in regards to testing?
GARY KORETZKY: Sure, I'd be happy to, Katherine. So one of the axioms that we're using is that if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it. And we have been really pleased with the anterior nares methodology, the self-collected that's observed. It's fast. It's easy, we feel.
We've put up a lot of testing sites so that it's not onerous. And it's also hopefully not overly inconvenient. And it works. And we know that it works. And we're able to even do this remotely. We test for Cornell Tech. We test for Weill Cornell in New York City.
We are, of course, aware that there are other testing methodologies. Before we adopted anterior nares, we did a very, very extensive validation. And we're comfortable that it gives us the information that we need.
We have colleagues. Cayuga Health has used now both anterior nares, nasopharyngeal, and saliva. The feedback that we get is saliva isn't so easy. It sounds easy. But it's sometimes hard to generate enough saliva. It seems to take longer for a lot of people. So our plan right now is to continue with anterior nares testing.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks. So I'd like to pivot to vaccines because, as I mentioned, there were a whole host of questions around vaccines. And I'm curious and hopeful that you can provide us a little bit more insight into how the vaccine works. What does it mean to be 90% effective, for instance?
GARY KORETZKY: Yeah, really, really important questions. And of course they're on the minds of everybody. And it's not hard to find things to read about the vaccines.
And I will point out that there is a vaccine page on the COVID website. And there's a lot of information there. But there's information that is easily obtained in many, many different venues. So I'd like to answer your questions, Katherine.
So first, how does the vaccine work? We won't go through a lot of the biology except to say that the two approved vaccines in the country are based upon the notion that cells in your body can be instructed to make a protein if they're given the right messenger RNA.
So these are the two Moderna and Pfizer messenger RNA vaccines. It's a messenger RNA that's encased in a lipid so it can get into cells. And that messenger RNA makes a single protein from the COVID, from the SARS-CoV-2, virus.
So you cannot get COVID from the vaccine. So that's really important to know. Unlike some vaccines which are damaged viruses, attenuated viruses, that's not the case for the COVID vaccine.
So what happens is that your cells make the COVID protein. It's actually the spike protein. And now you begin to make an immune response to that protein.
And in fact, that's why people often feel a little bit ill after the vaccination. Their arm might hurt. They might have a little fever. They might be weak or a little-- not feel like going to work the next day. That's not because you've got COVID. It's because you're beginning to make the immune response against that spike protein.
So do these vaccines work? So the studies, of course, were done prior to the approval. We know that they're 90% to 95% effective. What does that mean? That means if you've got 100 people that would get COVID without having the vaccine, if you had that same population that got the vaccine, five to no more than 10 people would actually get COVID.
And what do we mean by that? That means get clinically ill. Now, some of those people would go to the hospital who didn't get the vaccine. Vanishingly few will go to the hospital if you've gotten the vaccine. But some may still get sick. And that's that 90%, not 100%, effectiveness.
But what's really important to know, and this came up in the chat and has come up often, is why, if people are vaccinated, are we still recommending or actually requiring that they wear masks, that they socially distance, that they do surveillance testing? And the reason why is that we know that the vaccine will prevent you from getting sick. But we don't know yet-- and who's we? So we as a scientific community. It's not just at Cornell.
We don't know yet whether or not somebody who was vaccinated may still be able to be infected and then actually be able to transmit the virus. So they may not get sick. They'll feel fine. But they may still carry the virus.
And so whereas the vaccine we know will protect you, we don't know whether or not it will still protect others from you. And for that reason, we just ask everybody to be scrupulous about masks.
And it will be hard, right? People will be vaccinated. They'll feel finally like the light at the end of the tunnel is there. But, boy, it is so important that everybody continue with these protective measures to protect their fellow members of the community and stay in testing so that we can find out whether or not somebody has actually become infected even though they're vaccinated.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks. I'm really appreciative that you drew in the questions around how this affects behavior. As we look at the light at the end of the tunnel, there are a few bumps along the way, and, we could say, the emergence of a high-transmission variant being one of those bumps or potential obstacles. And I'm hoping, Gary, that you can talk a little bit about what the current state of knowledge is around the high-transmission variant which, I guess, has also been identified in Tompkins County.
GARY KORETZKY: Yeah, so I'll say one word about that. It has been identified in Tompkins County-- one viral isolate. It was from somebody who was at risk for that particular variant because of travel.
And we do know that there were no contacts of that individual. So hopefully it was an isolated case. I'll also make a little shout out to the lab that-- it was not a Cornell member, a member of the Cornell community.
But the lab did the sequencing. Our lab did the sequencing. And this is, again, another statement of this collaboration between the health department, Cayuga Health, and Cornell.
So what do we know about the variant? We know that the variant does transmit more easily. We know some of the biology that's likely the cause of that.
The virus does-- it's the same S protein. It's got a mutation in the S protein. So it binds more avidly to the receptor on our own cells so that a smaller inoculum of the virus may then give you an infection. Whereas you wouldn't have gotten an infection with that small inoculum of the wild type virus, this variant seems to transmit more easily.
So what are we doing about it? So that was part of the modeling. And that was part of these measures that we're putting into place to try to get results faster. If this is a variant that is more easily transmitted, the sooner we find people, the sooner we can isolate them from others, the more protection we'll have.
Similarly, increasing testing frequency if needed. Things like that are measures that we could put into place. And we are unfortunately quite sure that the variant will come here. You know, in other ways it's been in Ithaca once. And we just hope that we can block the transmission. So if you find people and you isolate them quickly enough, you block this cascade of infection.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks. And another reinforcing message for wearing those masks and continuing to practice social distancing and proper hygiene. Gary, I'll give you a bit of a break and turn over to Mary.
Mary, thank you for answering a lot of questions around eligibility, the vaccinations. I think what I'd like to turn to are there are some questions that we got ahead of time in terms of, how long do you expect that we will continue to work remotely? And how is the thought process going around those decisions?
MARY GEORGE OPPERMAN: Thanks for the questions. And thank you, Katherine. I have gotten this question a lot. I think there is a difference between choosing to work remotely all or part-time and being told you have to work remotely all the time.
And so folks are eager. They miss the campus. They want to come back. And we understand that. Right now with the cases the way they are, our anticipation is it's likely that we will stay in our current status through this semester.
I will be the first one, if we have good news, if science sends us in a faster direction, to stand up and tell you all that. But the way things are looking right now, I would say we'll complete this semester the way that we are now.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thank you, Mary. So in the question and answer, there was a question that just offers an opportunity for you to talk a little bit more about those essential workers that may not have access to the vaccine. What are we doing to protect them until we're able to have vaccines more widely?
MARY GEORGE OPPERMAN: Yeah, thanks for that question, too. And as I've said and the provost has said, we really do believe that the best way to keep our campus safe is for everyone who is on the campus to be able to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
But we also understand that the available vaccines are very limited, even now. So the best thing that we can all do for one another is to protect those essential workers that are here every day. They have a part to play. And they're playing it.
They're careful in their personal circumstances because what we do when we're not on campus affects those that we come in contact with when we are on campus. They answer their daily checks honestly and fully so that if there is something they're worried about, we want them to say, yeah, I actually haven't been feeling so great lately. Or I feel a little different. Or I think I came in contact with someone.
Take that telehealth visit. And talk this through with a health provider so that you know whether the best thing to do is to come in or stay home. And then follow their directions.
As soon as it is possible, we will let you know when those eligibility guidelines expand. We want them to do that as soon as they can. And we want there to be available vaccine.
But until then, I hate to sound like a broken record, but it's the things we know that protect us-- keeping on our masks, limiting our close contact, especially-- especially-- when we are eating or drinking because when we do that, we take down our mask. That's the best we can do for now. And we will continue the very active conversations we're having in New York State.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thank you, Mary. Lisa, I have a couple of questions for you on teaching. And there have been some very specific questions in the chat box around access to the Canvas and the technology. But I'd like to sort of ask you some more broader ones.
Ahead of this meeting, there were several questions that came about in terms of teaching modalities in response to access to a vaccine. And I know that you have communicated this. But I'm just hopeful that perhaps you can restate again how instructors and chairs and deans should be thinking about people's interest in changing modalities of teaching to enable them to, for instance, have a vaccine. What are some ways of thinking about that?
LISA NISHII: So we have been working directly with 100-plus academic units across campus to develop the roster that was for the fall and again for the spring and then probably again for next fall in some form. And so we've been communicating through our key department point people.
And through these channels, a couple weeks ago, I think it was, when we first heard about 1B, indicated we realized that this could mean that some instructors want to change their instruction mode. And we invited requests, noting that we couldn't guarantee that we could make those changes because we can't change the time of a course because students have enrolled and avoided conflicts based on the class meeting times that have already been published.
And so it was conditional on that that we could actually find a classroom for them. And there was a deadline of-- what week are-- it was earlier this week because we needed to be able to reallocate these classes to classrooms so that we can publish core classroom assignments this weekend. So that window has closed, Katherine.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks for that. And I recognize that this next question is once again sort of asking you all to look into your crystal ball. But when do you envision you might make decisions about what the fall is going to look like in terms of remote, hybrid, et cetera?
LISA NISHII: Really good question. Lots of conversations about this. We are thinking about various scenarios. But really, we need a little bit more information.
Over the next three or four weeks, expect to learn more about increases in the availability of vaccines. And because of the timeline, the long runway associated with the actual development of the roster, our desire to enroll students for fall classes by the end of the spring semester, and then there are a lot of functions that follow, like financial aid processing and things like that, for all of this to happen, really our goal is to make that decision by mid to late February, probably late February.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Let me just add one thing there, Katherine. And that is that as people think about the fall, one option that we have here is to think about our teaching in the normal fashion, not de-densifying our teaching, and then providing the kinds of accommodations that we need to provide to those people that have not been vaccinated or cannot get vaccinated. And that's something we're thinking about.
We're also now thinking a little bit about modeling that condition and using the science to understand the relative risks associated with lower prevalence, which will also almost certainly be the case in the fall, higher immunity, which will almost certainly be the case in the fall, versus the protections that you get from de-densification. And those are the kinds of issues that we'll be struggling with and thinking about and using science to inform us over the next six weeks.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks, Mike. And since I have you in the spotlight, there was a question that came up in the Qualtrics survey as well as in the chat. A nearer term decision around commencement-- what do you think the timeline is around making decisions for commencement?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: You know, I wish I could tell you. We haven't made the decision yet. I'm frankly having trouble thinking about how we could have a normal commencement at the end of May. I think we all have to be realistic about that.
I wish it were otherwise. And we will continue to look at this and try and do what we can. But we would need to be convinced that we could safely gather to have a normal commencement. And it's just looking very unlikely at the moment.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thanks for that. I think that this next question might be best answered by Gary. And there were some questions in the Qualtrics prior to this meeting around travel and whether or not we are expecting any changes in the travel policies that were laid out for last semester for this coming semester.
GARY KORETZKY: Katherine, I know this is a hard one. And it's hard for everybody. I mean, we're a very mobile society. People like to travel. And for academic reasons, people like to travel. I mean, I used to have four plane tickets waiting for the next trips, right? And that is completely different now.
I must say that I just don't see it in the near term. The cadence of the virus around the country and around the world is such that it is incredibly risky. We think that's the case. And we know that that's the case.
We have analyzed the risk factors for members of our community being positive over last semester. And there is a huge relative risk for travel. We just know that. And I don't think it's going to be better in the very near term.
So we are encouraging strongly that people only travel if it's urgent, that, as I mentioned, there's going to be more oversight on student travel. We're really urging people to enjoy the Ithaca winter. And hopefully they'll be able to do so.
You know, of course there'll be situations where you have to travel. There are emergencies. And there will be recognition of that. And that will be of course not only accepted, but it will be expected.
But barring that, it's really, I think, in everybody's interest not to travel. We're so close, right? People will be vaccinated soon. And if we can hang on, I think it really benefits the community.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thank you for that. Lisa, I'd like to turn to you. There were some questions in the question and answer regarding study spaces for students. And could you talk a little bit about how the University is handling study spaces for students so that they can go and find a place on campus to quietly study and the extent to which some of those are available to participate in online classes?
I believe that some of these are also being handled at the college level. But there were some questions around how students get access to those quiet spaces online to either study or to take classes.
LISA NISHII: I don't think I've made it that far in the Q&A. I'm trying to go through them. But so we do have spaces for students. We could, for sure, benefit from adding more small rooms that have good Wi-Fi for students to be able to use for their online classes.
And these rooms belong to colleges, so to speak. They're in-- a lot of them are in college buildings. And so we are relying on the different units to release rooms for us to be able to add to the inventory. We've been able to add inventory throughout the months here.
We also just launched, I think it was yesterday or the day before, some improvements that will make it easier for students to find the kinds of rooms that they need and some other filters that they can use in reserving the rooms that they need on campus. We know there's a big need for this.
And so it's a continual process. Lots of back and forth working directly with the unit facilities directors to enhance the availability of these spaces for students. They reserve through Chatter. Students know how to get there.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thank you for that. Lisa, while I've got you here, maybe this is a quick question. There were some things that you mentioned today people weren't familiar with before today-- great use of the town hall meeting. The classroom assistants, for instance, can people still apply or send in information about requesting one?
LISA NISHII: So I mentioned this in an email from a couple weeks ago to all faculty. And faculty who are in our records as teaching in the classroom should have received an email from me already. So please go look for that email because there are links in there to a very short Qualtrics where you can tell us about your needs.
But we do need this information as soon as possible because if it means we need to hire more classroom assistants, we have to get on that right away because training and everything begins next week for the assistants.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: And if they somehow didn't or can't find that email or maybe just switched to teaching within the last two weeks, how do they get in touch with you?
LISA NISHII: If they just switched to in-class teaching, we are pulling that list actually as we speak so that we can reach out to the instructors of those classes early next week or so to start this conversation with them. And if you did not receive an email from me, then email firstname.lastname@example.org. And we can get a conversation going that way.
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Thank you. Thank you, Lisa. Mike, I think that this last one might be for you. And it's perhaps a continuation. As we're talking about planning for fall of '21, commencement, we bookended summer. And what is the current thinking around what the summer will look like on Ithaca's campus?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, we're currently thinking there would be a few summer programs on Ithaca campus. One of the things we talked about is PSP and prioritizing that. And we have made the decision that we would try and have an in-person PSP. It's so important to our students entering.
Most other programs, we're saying the first half of the summer-- a little bit like last year-- the first half of the summer we're thinking we cannot make commitments for on-campus activities. We're hoping that individuals can delay their decision as long as possible.
Perhaps the second half of the summer we'll be able to have some on-campus programs. But I think the prudent thing-- for example, I talked today to summer sessions. They're going all online for their high school programs. We won't have high school students on campus this summer.
So I think that's probably the best-- if that decision can be made, it's probably the safest decision. And perhaps, Katherine, I see we're at time now. Could I just say a couple things to wrap?
KATHERINE MCCOMAS: Sure, I just wanted to say one thing before I handed the floor over to you, which was just to point out to the panelists, if you haven't been able to read it, there have been a lot of very kind things that have also been said.
A lot of shout-outs and praise to the people who are working in the testing facilities. And a lot of gratitude toward that. And also the gratitude toward what all of you are doing to help reopen campus and keep people safe. And so I just wanted to make sure that that got called out. So back over to you, Mike.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Great point. And if people haven't heard the names, Diego Diel and Kim Potter, two really critical people-- Lorin Warnick as well as Gary-- really manning that laboratory 24/7 and making sure that that is part of keeping us all safe.
I just want to end by thanking everybody for their participation-- so many people on this webinar town hall-- and to thank you again for everything that you've done so far and to really appeal to our community spirit again to just do it one more time and mount the kinds of efforts our students-- I've said this many times, but we saw at the beginning of the fall semester editorials saying that students could not be trusted to behave appropriately and that it was crazy to bring students back and allow them to be part of an in-person semester.
We've disproved that. And we know that our students can do it. We know that our faculty and staff have committed themselves to doing it. I really thank you so much for everything that you've done and to ask you again to set the model for the country, really, in terms of how to conduct a safe college in-person experience. So thank you very much.
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Katherine McComas, Vice Provost for Engagement and Land-Grant Affairs, moderated a town hall for faculty and staff on Jan. 22, 2021. Panelists answered questions about plans for the spring semester and the latest information on vaccines. Panelists: Mike Kotlikoff, Provost; Mary Opperman, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer; Lisa Nishii, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education; and Gary Koretzky, Vice Provost for Academic Integration.