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Cornell University study: Online classes would result in more infections, hospitalizations

Monday, Jul 6, 2020

* The Southern

Southern Illinois University has laid out a plan that calls for bringing thousands of students back to campus and offering them a mix of traditional face-to-face classes, online and hybrid courses — while implementing numerous precautions.

Chancellor Austin Lane, whose first official day on the job was Wednesday, said the plan emphasizes safety, and also strives to offer returning students some semblance of the campus life they desire. It is the result of hundreds of hours of planning, research and surveys ongoing since March.

“We actually polled our students, faculty and staff, and the majority is saying they want to come back,” Lane said. “Now, they are saying they want to come back and ensure that safety measures are in place.” […]

“I think that’s what we’re doing right now, we’re rolling the dice — making that gamble without having really analyzed the bet,” said Dave Johnson, president of the SIU Faculty Association that represents tenured and tenure-track faculty. Johnson said SIU’s survey missed a key perspective. While a majority of faculty may want to resume face-to-face instruction, the vast majority also believe the decision on what format to hold classes during the pandemic should be theirs alone — rather than directed by administrators.

* Inside Higher Ed takes a look at Cornell University’s reopening calculations

But for Cornell, one additional piece of information was “very important” in making that decision, according to Martha Pollack, the university’s president. That was the finding from Cornell researchers that holding the semester online potentially could result in more infections and more hospitalizations among students and staff members than holding the semester in person would.

A study by Cornell researchers concluded that with nominal parameters, an in-person semester would result in 3.6 percent of the campus population (1,254 people) becoming infected, and 0.047 percent (16 people) requiring hospitalization. An online semester, they concluded, would result in about 7,200 infections and more than 60 hospitalizations.

The conclusion rested on a few different assumptions. First, the study assumed about 9,000 Cornell students would return to Ithaca — even if there is no in-person learning or physical campus life.

Researchers concluded that during an in-person semester, asymptomatic testing is crucial for containing an outbreak and keeping the total number of infections low. When students live and take classes on campus, the university can enforce such a testing program with a variety of methods. For example, students who don’t get tested can lose access to residence halls or be locked out of their email accounts, said Peter Frazier, a data scientist and professor in Cornell’s School of Operations Research and Information Engineering, who led the study.

But when instruction is online, the university loses much of that ability to encourage and enforce testing.

Discuss.

* Related…

* Tom Kacich: A silly, ideological skirmish while a global war rages: Yet [Rep. Brad Halbrook] said if he had school-age children, he “probably” would send them to school without face masks.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

17 Comments
  1. - FinanceCity - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 11:16 am:

    The college won’t be able to enforce parties or bars (one of the more riskier behaviors)


  2. - Concernedmom - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 11:20 am:

    How is living in a dorm any different than being stuck on a cruise ship? How would they ensure they can get enough test kits? Might work for a small college campus, but not large universities. I’d prefer to keep my child at home with online classes. Unfortunately, I think the universities are more concerned about $$$ than the health and safety of our children.


  3. - Marcos - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 11:28 am:

    I’m not sure if 9,000 students would really come back if there’s no in-person learning. Would parents really want to pay thousands of dollars for room and board if there were no classes? Plus, kids coming from hot spot states have to quarantine for 2 weeks in NY. That would be hard to enforce.


  4. - 47th Ward - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 11:37 am:

    ===president of the SIU Faculty Association that represents tenured and tenure-track faculty===

    Lol. If chefs, line cooks and waiters had tenure, all restaurants would still be closed. I keep reading that faculty expect their administrators to make sure campuses are 100% safe or they won’t be comfortable returning to work. In this COVID world, there is no guarantee like that. We’re all going to be risking it, to some degree.

    Faculty wanting to get paid but not teach is one of the great paradoxes of higher education. And it’s universal.


  5. - efudd - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 12:00 pm:

    Junior colleges in southern Illinois have been leading the way in “distance learning” as it used to be called, for years.

    IMO they are much better equipped for this new reality, and may utilized by more students that would have considered them pre-Covid 19.


  6. - Not a Billionaire - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 12:19 pm:

    If I were in college now I would take an online it or a year off. Lost year better than lost life.
    The latest was almost an entire fraternity at U of Washington testing postive. . If you think it’s OK to walk into these Petri dishes…maybe you shouldn’t be in college.


  7. - Suburban Mom - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 12:30 pm:

    One sane and sensible policy would be for the feds to help prevent colleges from going under if they promised not to have on-campus classes next year; the feds to provide student loan funds as normal so student can continue attending online and paying room and board and — here is the kicker — for colleges across America to provide credit for students who work in temporary Covid-supporting roles and for the feds to cancel the student loans for every semester a student does so.

    To reopen elementary schools with adequate social distancing, we’re going to need a LOT more adults, many of whom will just be supervising children, not teaching. Why shouldn’t those adults be healthy young college students kept safely away from campuses? We’re going to need a LOT more people trained to perform tests, and a LOT more contact tracers — more jobs college students can do, keeping campuses safely closed while providing the enormous surge in temporary workforce we need to safely reopen elementary schools and other vital industries. They could work four hours a day and have the rest of the day for distance learning, and knock off a bunch of credits while the feds pay their freight and they help their home communities cope with Covid.

    But, not a sane country, and no coordinated federal response, so.


  8. - Amalia - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 12:43 pm:

    Was the Cornell study sponsored by SEC football?


  9. - Jibba - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 12:44 pm:

    Garbage in, garbage out.


  10. - Chatham Resident - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 1:15 pm:

    ==Was the Cornell study sponsored by SEC football?==

    It could also have been sponsored by Ivy League benefactors and donors, who refuse to donate any more money to their schools unless the students return to campus.


  11. - Dance Band on the Titanic - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 1:34 pm:

    “Researchers concluded that during an in-person semester, asymptomatic testing is crucial for containing an outbreak and keeping the total number of infections low.”

    A number of colleges are cancelling their fall sports because they cannot afford the cost of continuously testing their athletes. Is anyone seriously expecting that those same colleges are going to test every asymptomatic student on a regular basis in order to be “safe”?


  12. - Comma Chameleon - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 2:02 pm:

    Cornell is a private R1 university with an ability to focus its science and technology resources on topics of concern to the university. It also has the means to use these resources to monitor the health of the university community in real-time. Cornell makes massive use of students in their research agendas, both to assist the productivity of faculty and train future generations of researchers and technicians. Even if there were no face to face classes a significant portion of the student body could be counted on to be willing to be present in order to participate in hands-on activities that are necessarily part of the educational experience. The University may decide this would be preferable for all concerned, and if they did it would not be a completely crazy idea. Just difficult to accomplish in practice.


  13. - Huh? - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 2:05 pm:

    I have a niece who attends SIUC. Am concerned about her safety. Dorms, cafeterias, and classrooms are not conducive environments for social distancing.

    Post adolescents adults (college students) are not the best judges of behaviors that are in their best interests. The mindset that they are impervious to the hazards of life is endemic.

    As I age, I reflect on the perils I inflicted on myself. It is a wonder I’m still alive.


  14. - OneMan - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 2:25 pm:

    == I’m not sure if 9,000 students would really come back if there’s no in-person learning. Would parents really want to pay thousands of dollars for room and board if there were no classes? Plus, kids coming from hot spot states have to quarantine for 2 weeks in NY. That would be hard to enforce. ==

    I would suspect most of these would be off-campus vs on campus. A fair number of leases were likely already signed or have been signed. Depending on where you are in America Ithica may be ’safer’ than where you are living with mom and dad. That is the discussion we had about Lawrence vs Chicagoland and some families have risk vectors in the household (like a family member working in health care).

    As for the 2-week quarantine, leases tend to start August 1st in college towns so you would have the two-weeks to do it.

    If you take the year off (or go local CC nothing wrong with that) are you going to not be saving time long term due to the need for classes in the major (like engineering labs) that the local CC isn’t an option for?

    It isn’t an easy decision and if he was entering his Freshman year, I think we would keep him home, but for now they are planning to have at least some stuff on campus and we are moving forward with that plan.


  15. - Lynn S. - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 4:26 pm:

    @OneMan,

    If your kiddo is going to Lawrence University in Appleton, WI: congratulations (multiple banned punctuations)

    My son graduated from there in the past few years, Phi Beta Kappa, semester abroad in Shanghai.

    He absolutely loved, I was very happy with him there, and within a month of graduation he started a job that pays double what his mom earns.

    So yeah, super happy with Lawrence and my kiddo, hoping your kiddo does well and has amazing experiences up there. Best wishes and best of luck (another banned punctuation).


  16. - Slugger O'Toole - Monday, Jul 6, 20 @ 4:56 pm:

    Andy Bernard must be very proud.


  17. - Doc Anonymous - Tuesday, Jul 7, 20 @ 1:15 am:

    ==Faculty wanting to get paid but not teach is one of the great paradoxes of higher education. And it’s universal.==

    Where did you hear that, 47th Ward? Faculty want to teach online, where they can keep not only themselves but their students safe. Faculty who can teach online (most can: a small proportion of classes can’t be done that way) aren’t “essential workers” in the COVID sense. But the best way to protect essential workers on the front lines (healthcare workers, grocery store workers, etc.) is to reduce the spread of the disease.

    You’re not “taking one for the team” if teaching in person gets other people sick. If you can do your job at home, doing it at home is the best way to help others. It’s not selfish, it’s the compassionate thing to do.


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