MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Good afternoon, everybody. My name's Mike Kotlikoff. I'm the Cornell provost, if you haven't met me. Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon. And I want to start by thanking everybody on this Zoom. Thanks particularly to those individuals, those graduate students that are involved in our teaching program and working as TAs. But thanks really to everybody for all that you're doing to help us as a community address the challenge of the COVID pandemic.
So I want to start-- I'll just give a little bit of an overview of some of the changes in the strategy that Cornell is pursuing for this semester. And this conversation with me and others is part of our effort to reach out and communicate with smaller groups around the changes that we're instituting, and to try and explain those and answer any questions that you might have about this strategy that we're undertaking to address what is-- what are changing conditions in the pandemic.
So let me begin by describing some of those changes-- the changes. First of all, what we're really attempting to do this semester is to control the spread of the virus. We know that we can't eliminate it. Omicron is too infectious, and it is essentially all around us, and we're in the middle of a national spike in the virus. But what we're focusing on is ensuring the health and safety of our community, and also the academic continuity of our students, including graduate and professional students and our undergraduate students.
Since our community is overwhelmingly vaccinated and boosted, we're at much lower risk of negative health consequences as a community. And we've had very few serious health consequences since the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, I'm not aware of a single hospitalization of a student, undergraduate or graduate student, since the beginning of the pandemic. Of course, we're not aware of all of the health issues that occur outside of our sphere, but we're not aware of any serious-- any infections that were so serious as to require entry into the hospital.
However, one of our biggest risks, and what we saw in December, is that so many individuals have-- are at risk of becoming infected, mildly symptomatic, or asymptomatic, but require isolation. And we were at risk in December of exhausting our ability to isolate our students, those students who live in our dorms or our co-ops, the RAs and others, for whom we're responsible of-- for providing isolation space.
So how are we going to address this challenge? We've got a strategy that, first of all, as you know, will be to go online at the beginning of the semester. That's the period, as you'll hear from Peter Frazier and Gary Koretzky-- is the period in which we expect most infections to occur. People will be returning to Ithaca infected, in many cases not knowing it. It's a reason why we're asking people to take departure-- pre-departure tests before they come to Ithaca, so that they can isolate in place and isolate for five days before they come, and then immediately upon entry, taking an entry test-- and again, rapidly isolating those individuals.
We're making more use of antigen testing this semester, because antigen tests allow us immediately-- well, within 15 minutes-- to know whether someone is positive or not. And that allows us to get them into isolation immediately, limiting their exposure to others and allowing us to control or dampen the infection amongst our population.
So we're going to detect as many of the returning positives as possible. We're going to isolate a number of those in dorms, and then others in hotels. And through that process, we're hoping-- and we're also hoping that our returning students will stagger their return over this period of online. And if we identify as many of those individuals as possible during that period of time, of course, they can isolate and still take classes, all of which will be online.
In addition to that, we're going to intensively test students for this entry period, where we're testing undergraduate students twice a week. Other students-- Gary will describe the testing protocol. It depends a little-- varies a little bit for graduate and professional students, but we'll be testing and identifying as many positives as possible. And then finally, we're switching to very high-quality masks. The idea there will be that itself will limit-- will be much more protective than cloth masks, in terms of limiting your own vulnerability, if someone is infected in your vicinity, and their risk of spreading that virus to you through a high-quality mask.
So again, all of this is in a shift to recognizing that we're not able to eliminate the virus, but we're going to focus on protecting individuals. Again, the best protection is our vaccination status as well as upgraded masking expectations. We expect to have very low risk on campus again for disease-- very, very low risk in our classrooms during this semester, when we move back into in-person classroom instruction.
So with that general introduction, I want to at this time ask Kathryn Boor, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate education, to take over as the host of this town hall. Kathryn--
KATHRYN BOOR: Well thank you, Provost Kotlikoff. I really appreciate that overview. Today we're going to focus really on the nuts and bolts of what the next couple of weeks will look like, to the very best of our knowledge, with the information that we have. And I'm going to be focusing predominantly on the questions that came in ahead of time through Qualtrics as we go through the next session.
Now, before I get to those questions, I would like to take a moment to introduce to you the panelists who will be presenting this afternoon. And so first, from Cornell Engineering, we have Peter Frazier, who is the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Professor of Operations Research and Information Engineering. And Dr. Frazier and his team have been working really throughout the entire pandemic to provide us with science-based strategies and predictions with regard to what the pandemic might look like for our team-- so very grateful that Peter is here with us this afternoon.
Next, we have Gary Koretzky. He's Cornell's vice provost for academic integration. And Dr. Koretzky has led the development of public health guidelines, and has been truly instrumental in working to keep our community safe. And also joining us this afternoon is Jason Kahabka, the Graduate School's associate dean for administration. And Jason has been working with our graduate and professional students and our graduate fields to interpret and to implement public health guidance for Cornell's graduate community.
And so I thank you all again, the panelists and the attendees, for joining us today. I know many of you have questions, and we are going to spend as much time as possible on them, again, focusing on the ones that were submitted ahead of time. Before we get started with those questions, I would like to remind our students-- our professional students in particular-- that many colleges will be hosting their own town halls.
Many of you submitted questions that were uniquely specific to those programs, and those questions have been forwarded to your colleges for their responses, so please stay tuned. Now, the most frequently asked questions up to this point were about the new mask guidance, and so to answer some of these questions, I would like to direct the first question to Dr. Koretzky. And so the question is, can you tell us who will receive these high-quality masks and how we'll get them?
GARY KORETZKY: Sure. I'm very happy to address that, Kathryn. And also, I would like very much to welcome everybody to this town hall. I know that we're not exactly where people were hoping we would be at this point in the pandemic, and we are all working really hard, as Mike said, to do two really critical things. And that is to mitigate the spread of infection as much as possible, knowing that Omicron, COVID, will be with us, but also at the same time preserving our ability to do the things that we just need to do as a university, and to avoid as much disruption as possible.
And masks actually play a really important role in that. We know-- the science is there-- that masks have an enormous impact on transmission of COVID. Wearing a high-quality mask protects you. That in combination with being vaccinated protects you incredibly well. Wearing a mask if you do have COVID diminishes markedly-- again, if it's a quality mask-- the ability of you to spread the virus.
So for that reason, we have taken the stand that everybody should not only be asked to, required to wear high-quality masks, but we'll provide them. So this will not be a cost to you. Masks will be available at the testing sites. They'll be available at other places around campus. As the semester gets underway, it'll be very easy to find a mask.
So when I'm talking about masks, what am I talking about? So these are not cloth masks. Cloth masks are not regulated in any way. The filter size is variable. They don't typically fit well. And so those, while may appear like they're protecting you, do a very, very marginal job of protection. Surgical masks that are well-fitting are actually excellent, almost as good as the masks everybody talks about, N95 masks and KN95 masks.
We're going to have all available. There will be N95 masks available, but those really will be available mostly for people who have special needs for this type of mask. But typically using them in the best way requires understanding exactly how to do the fit. But there'll be KN95s and surgical masks available for the entire community. And again, the regulations are-- the requirement is inside wearing masks, in classrooms wear masks, when in groups wear masks, because it really does make a difference.
KATHRYN BOOR: So thank you, Dr. Koretzky. And I'm going to stay on masks for a moment and ask for a bit of a clarification. So now that omicron is with us and is causing us to shift our thinking on the ways that we're interacting, are we still allowed to unmask when we're alone in our own offices or in our labs? Or should we only unmask when we're eating and drinking?
GARY KORETZKY: Yeah, so again, a really good question, Kathryn-- and the idea is to be prudent and be careful, but also be reasonable. And if you're sitting alone in your office, I don't think it's required to wear a mask. That isn't one of our guidances. If you're sharing an office, then you should. If you're sitting alone in your office and somebody comes in to chat, then both the person coming in and you should be wearing a mask.
But if you're sitting alone in your office, then it's not required to be wearing a mask-- same thing if you're in a laboratory, and you're the only one there. It's midnight. You're working really hard. You don't have to wear a mask. But if you're working with others, just out of respect to them and out of wisdom, it really makes a lot of sense to be wearing masks, and that's where the guidance comes from.
Outside, I'd wear a mask because it's going to be 5 degrees below 0 tomorrow night. But if you're outside in a group, it makes sense to wear masks, if you're doing things together. If you're outside by yourself, of course, it's not necessary to wear a mask.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Dr. Koretzky. And I'd like to shift gears now and ask a big picture question. And this one is for Dr. Frazier. And the question is, what is the baseline infection rate that you're looking for to determine whether it's safe for students to return to in-person instruction?
PETER FRAZIER: Thanks, Kathryn. I want to start by thanking all the students who work on the mathematical modeling team. They've been putting just a huge amount of effort in since the start of the pandemic-- many of them graduate students, PhD students taking time away from what they thought their dissertation was going to be about in order to work on helping us make sure that everybody stays safe.
So in terms of baseline infection rates and thinking about whether it's safe for students to return to in-person instruction, I'll say-- let me first say that a high infection rate would be a problem, but before it became a safety risk, it's a lot more likely that it's going to be a problem for being able to teach effectively in person. And that's because, when many students are in isolation, it's really hard to operate in-person classes, because many students are not able to be there.
There is a prevalence level such that we would need to revisit our timing, the timing of our pivot to in-person instruction, but it's-- the most likely scenario is that adjustment would be driven by the ability to teach effectively, and not because of safety. So just to build on that, over the fall 2021 semester, the students on the modeling team, and I, and two other faculty members-- and actually, within a larger effort, people on-- in the MPH program doing contact tracing in Lisa [INAUDIBLE] office-- together we spent a lot of time looking for evidence of in-class transmission.
So [INAUDIBLE], a PhD student in the Center for Applied Math, and [INAUDIBLE], a PhD student in operations research, together with Brian Liu, who is a former undergraduate-- now a PhD student at MIT-- they did a population level statistical analysis looking at infections in classrooms-- looking for evidence of infections in classrooms, detailed contact tracing of cases that people were worried about positives positive-- students who had attended class, and then also a big data collection effort in Bailey Hall.
So despite several different investigations looking for evidence of in-class transmission, we weren't able to find any evidence. Now, that doesn't mean it didn't happen, but it does strongly suggest that, at least during the fall 2021 semester, that transmission was quite rare. And that that's consistent with a physics-based modeling study that [INAUDIBLE] did at the same time. And you can find details of that on the-- if you search for Cornell epidemiological and mathematical modeling, you'll see a link to those reports.
Now, the spring semester is different than the fall semester. So first of all, omicron is more transmissible, and at the same time, we have a change to mask recommendations. What we believe, our best guess, is that the amount of transmission that's created by a single person in class in the spring is likely comparable to the fall.
It varies based on how you do your estimates, but even under very pessimistic estimates, it's only about a factor of 2 larger. And because the baseline transmission, we believe, was so small, it doesn't seem likely that transmission in classrooms in the spring semester is likely to rise to the point where it's a significant contributor to overall viral transmission.
Now, with that said, there are continue to be many unknowns, and we're continuing to watch for evidence of classroom spread. We'll be applying some of the same methods that we used in the fall 2021 semester to look in spring 2022. And so if we were to see new evidence that made us believe that something had changed in classrooms, then that might necessitate the decision. But just to summarize, I think the primary risks are-- in terms of in-person-- to in-person instruction are the ability to teach effectively, rather than safety.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Dr. Frazier. Now, the next question is from a doctoral student who was wondering about conducting research. And so I'll address this question to Provost Kotlikoff. The question is, our research operations on campus able to resume in person while the rest of campus is remote? And are there any constraints regarding research-- for example, working with unvaccinated populations, such as children under the age of five?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yes. Thanks, Kathryn. The answer is yes, research activities can resume-- are currently going on. They're going on under the guidelines that we've talked about, with masking and distancing, where possible. But we're really, as I said in the beginning, pivoting back to as normal operations as possible, hoping that our graduate students can continue their research activities and progress towards their degrees.
So there are situations that are special situations-- so for example, human studies, kids under five. Those, I think, are most appropriately not dictated from the center, but determined based on the actual research that's occurring. I don't know, for example, whether those are interviews that can be conducted at a distance remotely or whether they require direct interaction.
But there are ways for virtually any of these things to occur safely, just as children under five that are vaccinated, go to the pediatrician and are safely handled and examined as part of those activities. So we want to try and make this as normal as possible. And I think the overall question is yes, but there may be situations in which those protocols need to be modified.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you. And Provost Kotlikoff, I'm going to stay with you for another question. And several of our students have asked questions about staying remote longer than the initial two weeks with online instruction. And specifically, they wonder if an option exists to remain remote for the remainder of the academic year, if they wish to do so. And some of our students would like to stay remote due to health concerns. For others, it's a preference.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yes. So we have a situation in place where health concerns are accommodated. And I will say, we have a-- that this same issue arises for faculty. Faculty accommodations are handled through one mechanism. Graduate student accommodations-- it's legally required-- are handled through Student Disability Services, SDS.
We've taken care of this time-- and I know there was some situations in which the same criteria were not clearly outlined in the past. We've taken care of this year to make sure that SDS has the same medical accommodation approach as we have for faculty, so graduate students would be treated identically to faculty in that way.
In terms of an option, that is difficult. If you are well, don't have a medical reason not to teach in person, but are just anxious about it, whether that's a faculty member or a graduate student, we are saying that we-- our mode of instruction is in person. And if we allowed everyone at their option to say, I don't want to do that, we would, of course, have a massive effect on our teaching programs, because all of those students would be then online as well.
So what we're asking everyone to do is, as Professor Frazier has indicated, we've created conditions in the classroom that are safe. We're asking individuals to conduct their teaching in that safe manner. We will, however, be observing data. And as Professor Frazier says, if the prevalence rises so much that we have students in isolation, we are at risk of the virus spreading beyond our control, we will act accordingly and make the appropriate changes in our in-person strategy.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you. Now, the next question remains with the remote theme, but I'd like to send this one to Jason Kahabka. And that question is from a PhD student at a late stage of their dissertation work. And they're not taking classes anymore, and the question is, can I switch to fully remote? So Jason, if you would, please--
JASON KAHABKA: Yeah. Thank you, Kathryn. This is actually a common situation, even before the pandemic, that oftentimes, students, once they're-- have completed their coursework, might sometimes be able to do their writing or wrap up their dissertation from a remote place. So this really depends on the nature of the research and the structure of their degree program.
So students working in laboratories really may not find that there's options to fulfill their assistantship duties or to finish up their academic research remotely. In fact, they might typically need to be in the labs, while other students could have flexibility to make progress on their degrees working from home, working from an apartment in Ithaca, or from some other place.
In particular, graduate students on assistantships really do need to coordinate with their supervisor, though, because oftentimes there are expectations and even requirements around assistantship duties. And on that last point, I just want to remind folks that the university doesn't have legal authority to have students on assistantships while they're outside the US. So in particular, if a student is asking this question because they hope to be abroad, that does require a different conversation. So work with your supervisor and also your department. And just be aware that, in most cases, you do need to be in the US while on an assistantship, even if you do have some flexibility not to be directly on campus.
KATHRYN BOOR: Terrific-- thank you, Jason. And I'm seeing in the questions and answers multiple questions about availability of masks and availability of tests. And I'd like Gary Koretzky, Dr. Koretzky to please address those particular questions now, please.
GARY KORETZKY: Sure, absolutely. So I'll start with masks. Masks will be available around campus as the semester starts. They will be available at all of the test sites before the start of the semester-- before the start of instruction on the semester. They are being procured right now and they're being distributed. So those will be available for people to pick up at the test sites.
I am quite sure that they'll also be available at the colleges. I think we're working out all of the distribution plans. Right now there aren't a lot of depositories of masks. We're still in the intercession. We're still during-- in the break. But as the semester begins, the surgical KN95, in particular, masks will be available widely.
I will talk about testing in a moment, if you'd like, Kathryn, but I-- this is a good time to remind everybody that we have never stopped testing for people who want it, that there are supplementary tests available. They were available Monday through Thursday around the holidays seven days a week. You can sign up. You can sign up at 4 o'clock for any time the next day, or during that day, and you can get a supplementary test.
That is a PCR test. That's been the strategy that we've used. Those are very, very sensitive tests. And we know that people are using them, because we collect them, we result them, and there continue to be positives. And there are positives amongst our undergraduates that are on campus, amongst our graduate students, amongst our staff and our faculty. That's just the nature of where we are right now with the pandemic and with omicron. Now, if you'd like, Kathryn, I can talk more generally about what we are asking of the community, in terms of testing.
KATHRYN BOOR: Please do.
GARY KORETZKY: Yes. So I'll start with people who are now here. We don't really keep track of where everybody is, but we're aware of probably more than 5,000 graduate and professional students who are now in Ithaca. Some of you have left and come back. Some have spent the entire break in Ithaca. Many have not been working in labs over Christmas and New Year's, or on campus have been enjoying a bit of a break with family, friends.
And so we feel that it's really, really important that everybody tests before they come back to their campus activities. So that's true for our faculty, for our staff. Faculty and staff who are coming back-- we asked them to get tested in advance, if possible, but certainly, the day they come back, do a supplementary test. Be particularly careful as you wait for the result. That's also true for any student who is now on campus-- now in the area.
If you're an undergraduate, you're still in our mandatory surveillance testing. If you're a professional student, you're still in our mandatory testing. If you're a graduate student, as you recall, there was no mandatory testing for you last semester. We're asking you to get a test before you come back to work, come back to school. And again, the best way to do that is through the supplementary testing program. Kathryn, did you need a-- you like I-- perhaps I wasn't clear.
KATHRYN BOOR: No. I was just about to ask you yet another question, Gary, in fact.
GARY KORETZKY: [INAUDIBLE]
KATHRYN BOOR: And that is, I was wondering if you could talk to us about the accessibility for graduate and professional students to our gyms in our libraries.
GARY KORETZKY: Ah, yes. Well, I think I might need a little bit of help here from Mike. The libraries now are open to graduate students who are doing their investigative work. Isn't that true, Mike?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, the libraries are open during this online period. The density is going to be controlled somewhat. I think that relates primarily to undergraduate students. We want to provide ample space for students to study outside of their rooms during the online period, and we're opening up classrooms and in colleges, determining areas where students can study.
But a lot of students study in the library, and that's being de-densified. I believe that does not apply to graduate students, and I think the graduate students have full access to the library. But please check with your local library. I can't imagine that you will be impeded from your work within the library.
GARY KORETZKY: And that's certainly true once the semester starts, which I guess is-- start of instruction is the 24th or so. But I believe that should be true right now. And as Mike said, check with the library. And the same thing with fitness centers-- they're on a schedule. I personally don't know when they open after the break, but when they open, they'll be opening for people's use-- again, to be very careful, to be-- with some increased distancing.
But I really want to emphasize something that Mike said, and that is that we're trying to be as least disruptive as possible, that there are critical things that people need to do on campus. They need to work in their labs. They need to use the libraries to-- they need to have recreational activities, and it is winter in Ithaca. So those things are going to be made available. They're going to be made available with guidance, but they're not going to be closed.
And certainly, when it comes to-- as Jason and Mike both spoke about-- research activities, work that needs to be done to complete thesis work, of course, that has to continue. We're in this phase now. We've been in the pandemic for a number of years. We've learned, to some extent, to live with it. We think that the guidance, the vaccines, and the masking protect us really, really considerably, so we do have to avoid disruption whenever possible.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Gary. So next question-- I'd like to turn to another modeling question for Dr. Frazier, and that is, what data points or events could trigger a fully remote semester?
PETER FRAZIER: Yes, absolutely. So first of all, I'll say that the spring semester of this year, 2022, is going to be unlike semesters in the past. We expect a very large number of cases at the beginning of the semester-- several thousand cases, perhaps even more-- spaced over a short time span.
Now, unlike in fall 2020 and in subsequent semesters-- unlike in fall 2021-- nearly everybody on campus will be vaccinated. Many students and employees will be boosted, and being vaccinated and being boosted provide substantial protection against developing severe symptoms. And there was also a question in the Q&A. And I pointed to a modeling report that has some of the scientific literature on that question, if you'd like to dig in.
The first course of vaccines are more well-studied than boosters, but I think the evidence on this is substantial. At the same, time there is evidence that omicron-- even after controlling for differences in infection across vaccinated people and non-vaccinated people, there's evidence that omicron is less likely to create severe symptoms, perhaps because it tends to be more of an upper respiratory infection than a lower respiratory infection.
And so even though we expect a very large number of cases, we expect the number of people that experience severe symptoms to actually be very, very small. And so the one risk would be viral spread into more vulnerable populations in the community.
So we'll be continuing to monitor the spread of the virus for signs that it's spreading into those vulnerable populations. And we'll also be watching symptoms among students and employees to make sure that what has been seen in other places is also seen here, in terms of symptom severity. But we currently believe that it's very unlikely that we would want-- that it would make sense to move to a remote semester because of health concerns.
Instead, the things that would be most likely to need to drive us to make changes to the timing of in-person activities would be operational disruptions. So I talked before about how it's hard to teach in classrooms when many students are in isolation. It's also hard to teach in classrooms when graduate student instructors and faculty instructors are in isolation. And then also, when many-- when employees that provide critical services, like food on campus-- when those employees are in isolation, it's also hard to operate an in-person semester. So that is a significant risk.
And then it can also be a challenge to provide-- to make sure that people have the housing that they need in order to isolate when they do test positive. And so that's another challenge, in terms of being able to operate when there's a very large number of cases. So there are definitely risks that would trigger a remote semester, and I think the primary ones would be those operational constraints-- ability to teach, ability to provide basic services, and then ability to provide isolation capacity.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Dr. Frazier. And now I'd like to turn to a question from an international student. And this one is for Jason Kahabka. And the question is, when would it be ideal for international students to return to Ithaca? So Jason, please--
JASON KAHABKA: Thanks, Kathryn. The general guidance is you should plan to return close to the start of the semester, not wait until the start of in-person instruction. And the reason for that is because the whole purpose of having this space of virtual instruction is so that people have time to get tested and isolate, if they turn positive. So in general, you should be planning your arrival back in the US and to campus in late January, the week of the 24th. And that gives you time. If you inadvertently test positive, you'll have time to isolate.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Jason. And next, I have another question for you. And this is a question from a student wondering about conducting research travel. And the question is, will our current policies impact graduate student travel for research and for conferences? And as a follow-up, how will case increases impact this type of travel?
JASON KAHABKA: Yeah. I sense that this question is triggered by the research travel restrictions that we had last year. And I know that impacted a lot of students' academic progress. At this point, we don't expect the same types of major research-- major travel restrictions as we saw last year. And right now there is no university restriction on essential academic travel.
However, if the CDC or other health organizations impose restrictions, there's always a possibility of disruption. I think the biggest risk actually are that some countries have very strict entry or testing requirements, so that can be a barrier. And then another point is just planning for contingencies. If you've traveled somewhere and then test positive, you might need to plan a buffer, in case you need to isolate before returning.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Jason. And I'd like to switch gears and send the next question to Provost Kotlikoff. And the question is, as TAs, how should we handle students being quarantined with COVID after the return to in-person instruction? Will we provide online access? And if so, will we provide online access in real time?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, thanks, Kathryn-- critical question. So of course, our strategy has been, with this online period, to try and minimize this disruption, but you will certainly have students in classes that are isolating during our return to in-person instruction. The best thing I can say is to urge discretion about how to do this.
You are not required to provide remote access in real time to students in isolation. That would create the need for many, many of our courses to be taught in a hybrid manner, and would disrupt the overall impact of that in-person instruction for those people that are in person. But there are a number of things that can be done to support those students-- class audio recordings, blackboard capture, facilitate collaborative note taking with Google Docs and other mechanisms.
There's a CIT website that-- says Center for Innovative Teaching website that I would recommend that people go to for guidance around this issue, and to work with the faculty in charge of courses to try and support students in the best way possible. Center for Teaching Innovation-- sorry-- CTI.
If a high percentage of students are in isolation, should an instructor hold the section online? There I think it's, again, important for TAs to consult with the primary instructor of record in the course about how to handle those situations. In some cases, I can imagine, if a section is-- if it's possible to do this with online access and there's many of the students involved, I could see that might be an option. But I would very much respond to the needs of the students and consult with a faculty member of record before doing that.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Provost Kotlikoff. And I have one more for you while I've got you on here. This one is from a professional student, and the question is, if we go back to-- or when we go back to in-person education this semester, will we have a February break, spring break?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yeah, we will have spring break. It's virtually impossible to change our calendar at this point, so we will have a spring break. I think the real question will be, how will we handle the period of reentry after that spring break? And that will very much depend on our prevalence at the time. As Professor Frazier has discussed, we expect to see this very high prevalence-- or high number of cases early on, particularly during this online period.
Then we expect that to fall to a much more manageable level. And depending on where that level is, what the prevalence of at the time is, what the national and local prevalence is, that will determine our strategy for re-entry after the spring break.
KATHRYN BOOR: So terrific-- and I see one that's just popped up in Q&A. Are we expecting an in-person graduation in May, provost?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: We are certainly expecting that. I absolutely hope that's possible. Of course, anything could happen here, where we've known that, with delta and with omicron, we're-- we can't really predict what's-- fully what's going to happen. But I can tell you that we are committed to having a may graduation, if at all possible.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you. Now, turning back to Doctor Koretzky-- and I'm going to ask a series of questions-- it seems that there's a lot of confusion about testing-- entry testing, arrival testing, and so forth. And we've got some folks who have just come online relatively late in this. Could you please one more time go through what arrival testing needs to look like, and what testing needs to happen?
GARY KORETZKY: Certainly, Kathryn. So I want to make the distinction between people that are here now-- have always been here-- and people who are away and planning to return. If you're here now in Ithaca and you're a graduate student, we're asking you to get tested before you start on-campus activities for the semester.
As last semester, there isn't going to be mandatory testing for graduate students after that entry test, and-- but there will be supplementary testing available. That is also true for professional students who are here, with the exception of the veterinary, and the law, and the MBA students. Those students, just like we did last semester, will be in extended arrival testing.
That's what we're calling it. They'll be tested for the first two to three weeks of the semester twice a week. So those are people that are here now. For individuals who are not now in Ithaca, we strongly, strongly urge people to get tested before you leave. I think Mike mentioned this. We've talked about it a few times if you are coming back, we will be testing you when you come back. If you test positive, you're going to have to isolate when you're here.
That's the way it goes. When we identify a positive individual, there will be a five-day isolation period. So the strong, strong recommendation is to get tested before you leave. This is so important, as we talked about, in terms of isolation that, for individuals who live in congregate housing, our undergraduate population that lives on campus, undergraduates that live in houses with many, many roommates, we have gone to the extra step of asking whether or not they need that antigen test before they leave.
We procured enough to be able to send to that group so that those group will-- those students are absolutely required to test before they return. And the reason why is that, if they return and they're positive, they might have roommates. They might be living in a dorm in a suite. And it becomes our responsibility to manage that isolation.
For graduate students and professional students, we're treating them like faculty. We're treating them like other members of the community, and we ask you to do whatever you possibly can to obtain a test before you return. Now, when you return, you should test within a day of your return. There is COVID outside of Ithaca. There's COVID that one can acquire during transportation.
And so for students who are coming back, and they're not going to be in regular testing, we want to do the most sensitive test possible. So returning graduate students who are away and come back, we'd like you to get tested by PCR. There'll be an arrival test. It's all part of the arrival checklist that all of you should have, and all of-- should have filled out, where you'll get a PCR test-- our most sensitive test-- upon arrival, and then you're done.
For the professional students, except for the vet students, and the law students, and the MBA students, the same process-- for the vet students, law students, and MBA students, we're going to have you test multiple times. So the first test will be an antigen test, and the reason why we can do that-- as Mike said, it's fast, but it's somewhat less sensitive. But you will be then tested multiple times by PCR.
KATHRYN BOOR: OK, that's terrific, Dr. Koretzky. And what I'm seeing still among the questions coming in is-- if you would reiterate again that the distribution of antigen tests to the different groups, and when they'll be used, and who will get one, that would be really helpful.
GARY KORETZKY: Yeah. So the antigen tests are being distributed to undergraduates who request them who are away. Undergraduates who return will get an antigen test upon return. If you live on campus, you'll get subsequent antigen tests. But if you live off campus, you'll get an antigen test when you return if you're an undergraduate, and then you're going to be enrolled into our PCR testing.
If you're a professional student, meaning that law or MBA-- when you come back, there'll be an antigen test, and then you'll be tested twice a week by PCR. If you're a graduate student or another professional student, you'll be tested by PCR the day-- or within a day of coming back.
KATHRYN BOOR: That's terrific. And one more time, you had mentioned that our testing sites will be open seven days a week, correct?
GARY KORETZKY: Seven days a week-- yep.
KATHRYN BOOR: [INAUDIBLE]
GARY KORETZKY: Yep, seven days a week-- Martin Luther King Day, weekends-- seven days a week. We want to make sure that, as soon as you come back, you have the opportunity to test.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: And could I just add that, again, like last semester, supplemental testing, the availability of testing-- if any student feels symptoms, feels that they're at risk of exposure, they can go in for a supplemental test at any time. Isn't that right, Gary?
GARY KORETZKY: Yeah. So Mike, I'll just make a slight tweak to that. If you're symptomatic, then you go to Cornell Health right now for a test. But we will be rolling out antigen testing for individuals that are symptomatic. We're not quite ready for that yet, so that will be certainly within the next week or so. But if you're symptomatic, we don't want you to go to one of those surveillance sites.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: But I thought, Gary-- sorry, but I thought, if you needed medical attention, you would go to Cornell Health. If you're symptomatic, you would not-- mildly symptomatic-- you would not go there. Is that not correct?
GARY KORETZKY: Right. Yes. So we want people to make appointments for-- to be seen at Cornell Health, if they're really feeling ill--
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Right.
GARY KORETZKY: --that, when a student is symptomatic, they should call Cornell Health for guidance, and they'll be given guidance on how to get tested. Again, one of the things, Mike, that we're not yet ready to do is to have-- we need to have a separate place for individuals who are going to surveillance testing sites who are symptomatic.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Who are symptomatic. Got it.
GARY KORETZKY: It's really important that we work this out, and we will be ready before the semester starts.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Dr. Koretzky. And I've got you still in the hot seat here for the next question. And that question is, what about enforcing the mask mandate? And the comment is, during the fall I saw many people not wearing masks at all. So if you could give some comment there about enforcement of the mask mandate--
GARY KORETZKY: Yeah. So there is a mask mandate. We are going to be providing masks. And the other thing that is really important is that we need to have our community continue to do what it's done really, really well so far. People have gotten vaccinated, as we've asked them to do that. Most people wear masks, as we ask them to do that.
We're not going to have a police force going around making sure that everybody's wearing a mask. We really hope that people will take personal responsibility and recognize that this is important for their health, but it's also the-- important for the health of others. So it's really a community spirit that we hope that everybody, and we're confident everybody will participate in.
We do hope that this is temporary. We can't tell you a date yet when masks will no longer be required, but at some point that will be the case. With the degree of vaccination that-- and boosting, we are confident that the omicron surge will diminish. And when it begins to diminish, we'll be able to begin to relax policies, but not quite yet. And so we really are asking for community help.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Dr. Koretzky. And I'd like to ask you a booster question that's-- that has come in through question and answer. And the question is, with Pfizer announcing this week that an omicron-specific vaccine will be available in early spring, [INAUDIBLE] considered an additional vaccine booster mandates until a variant-specific intervention is available? And then, and does Cornell anticipate mandating omicron-specific boosters/vaccines in addition to the current iteration of boosters?
GARY KORETZKY: Yes, so right now there is a booster mandate, and the booster mandate is-- and right now the boosters that are available in the United States are the two mRNA vaccines, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, and-- that there is no omicron-specific vaccine available in the United States right now, and so we are not mandating it.
I know that everybody-- many companies have been working on this. And it would be terrific if there is an omicron-specific vaccine, but it won't be ready in time, certainly, for us to have the protection that's afforded by that third dose. So right now the booster requirement is an mRNA vaccine, because those are really the ones that are available for anybody who's had one dose of Johnsom & Johnson or has had two doses previously of Moderna and Pfizer.
The deadline is January 31. There are booster clinics available now in Tompkins County, and we just hope everybody could do their very best in finding a booster, because again, it really matters. It really makes a difference.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Kathryn, if I could just add to that, I do see a question in here about, if I've had COVID, do I-- why do I need to get a booster? And we do have a website on the-- basically that references the data behind the value of a booster. Natural infection with omicron does, of course, supply some immunity, but there's pretty good evidence that the boosters are really effective at amplifying the antibodies against COVID beyond what you would get for-- the variable effect that you get from natural infection.
There's also good evidence on the additional protection that boosters provide as your regular vaccination, your second shot-- you begin to wane in immunity over time. There's good emerging evidence, and published evidence, that boosters are quite effective at reestablishing that original vaccination immunity.
KATHRYN BOOR: Thank you, Provost. And while I've got you in the hot seat, I would like to ask a couple of questions with regard to our distance learning, our executive education students. There are a couple of questions here. So two questions here-- if a student is not planning to come to campus this semester, must they upload proof of a booster? Or if they are coming to campus, what guidelines should they follow?
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Yeah. So if you're not coming to campus, you're not subject to the testing requirements. I believe that the booster requirement is a requirement for everyone that's in the employ of the university. I can certainly understand the perplexity around that requirement, but it really relates to our own employment responsibilities. And it is for your own protection. So I'm afraid to say that the booster mandate does apply.
KATHRYN BOOR: Terrific-- thank you. So we are right at time at this point, and I would like to very much thank our panelists for answering [INAUDIBLE] to them today for this town hall. I thank all of you who have participated and asked questions-- so thoughtful questions in this particular town hall. And so we look forward to seeing you all on campus in the very near future, and thank you very much.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Thank you all.
KATHRYN BOOR: Bye, all.
MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: Thank you for what you're doing.
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Graduate and professional students from across the Ithaca/Geneva campuses along with senior university leadership to discuss testing, masks, and other public health guidelines for Spring 2022.
Please note: This town hall included all graduate and professional students, including Graduate School, Vet, Law, and Johnson graduate students.