mailmanDear Editor,

I am a life-time Ithaca resident. I was raised in the country outside of town and educated in Ithaca City Public Schools. I now live and work in Ithaca.

I write to you out of urgency as Cornell University, whose campus sits on our east hill, is putting into motion a plan to bring thousands of students from around the world back to our region in a fashion that will spread the COVID 19 virus in our community.

The plan as is will cause preventable deaths amongst my friends, family and loved ones. The authors of the plan state as much in their executive summary when they admit that this kind of reopening will spread the virus regionally. Their claim that their plan to re-open their campus to thousands of students is good public health and better than a remote alternative is counterfactual and misleading in the extreme.

We have been blessed, through the work of mutual aid and good social distancing in the region, to have lived through the virus without anyone in the community dying to date. The numbers for the virus' spread in this region are the best in the nation.

Cornell is threatening to change all the safety and progress we have achieved in order to collect full tuition and campus service fees from their thousands of students.

This letter is broken into four brief parts: Cornell's Plan, Students' Risk, Community Risk and Solutions.

Cornell's Plan

Cornell University released their re-activation plan this June, 2020 to re-open their historic Ithaca campus on September 1st. 2020 to their undergraduate and graduate students. They drafted and deployed the plan without holding a single town hall or forum for residents or community service providers. Their plan, outlined in the report from the Committee on Teaching Re-activation Options (C-TRO), rests on making their campus available for instruction and keeping their students' on and off campus frequently tested for the virus.

The Cornell Reactivation Plan depends on heavy testing and students' good faith to socially distance and quarantine on and off campus in dorms, fraternities, and local houses and apartments. The plan never addresses the implications of the spread of the virus in the broader community that will take place as a result of the inevitable failure of this strategy.

The most unsettling part of the Cornell Re-Activation Plan, however, is how plainly the author's acknowledge the certainty of the spread of the virus if the plan were to be carried out and how quickly they divest from any responsibility to the broader community of the county for whom that spread will be deadly.

This is a plan that calls for thousands, potentially tens of thousands, of students from around the country and the world to return to one place.

Our town has a population that hovers around 30,000 people when school is not in session. The type of abrupt flash-in-the pan return of students the university is calling for would spread the virus throughout the region.

The model that serves as the foundation of their report, developed by Cornell Associate Professor Peter Frazier, focuses exclusively on the boundaries of the campus. It offers polly-annish descriptions of the re-opening's effect on the spread of the virus. The model includes estimates of infected subjects passing the virus to only two or three other people before being identified and quarantined. It also assumes seemingly universal compliance by all students with social distancing policies in dormitories, fraternity houses and dining halls which would all be reactivated.

The proposal is patently centered on collecting the most tuition possible for the university by inviting the most students, unnecessarily, back to campus for campus services. It is stridently anti-public health for the region, referring to us as a "sustained source of infection" (Appendix 2, pg. 55) and then plainly dropping our population as a subject until the end portion of the report ("Tompkins County Community Impact") devoted to marketing which instructs politicians and media outlets to remind us of "the economic importance to the region of Cornell" ( pg 52.)

Student's Risk

The author's of the Cornell Reactivation Plan clearly state in their executive summary that their intention is not to create a plan to inhibit the spread of the virus but admit rather that "it is inevitable that, as members of our community now not in the region return, some will be carrying the virus. Our overall goal is to implement approaches to campus re-activation that will mitigate the burden of infection and severity of disease, while minimizing disruption to normal campus life to the greatest extent possible" (Pg 4, Executive Summary, "Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options"). The report does not mention any model for a fully remote semester.

Instead the authors claim that Cornell's capacity to provide a fully remote semester, as one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, would, contrary to common sense, be detrimental to general public health. The university, they claim, is better equipped to test students routinely for the virus than those students' home communities. The report does not mention the potential for Cornell to offer tests for their students' where they live.

The authors portray their campus reactivation as a sort of sanctuary for students who do not have a safe home in which to study. In their initial surveys of the student body the university found that 3,488 undergraduate students and 605 graduate students were "somewhat or very concerned about having access to a quiet space conducive to learning" (pg. 41)

With this population in mind and Cornell's abundant confidence about testing and behavior policy to maintain good social distancing, the university is proposing to activate every single building on their campus to have classes in non-conventional classrooms and students quarantining in their dorms or in the school's hotel to welcome an unreported number of students back to Ithaca (Appendeixes 4, 10, 11). The plan does not mention to what degree activating this many buildings and the attendant staff will spread the virus in the region because they did not study it.

My family and friends work in non-profit sucidie prevention and other psychological services in the region. It is an open secret that the university's overworking policies are huge contributors to chronic death by sucidie in the region and on their campus. They have the worst student mental health record in the ivy league and they are aware of it.

Their plan to re-open offers two paragraphs and one appendix on student mental health during the pandemic. The proposal calls for new pamphlets to be written and a website to be created (Appendix 16). It does not offer any new staffing, financial support for existing community mental health resources, nor does it acknowledge the possibility of an enormous public mental health crisis amongst the students tied to tuition debt, dorm agreements and extreme quarantining and testing procedures in the semester they're proposing.

Community Risk

The plan calls for students who live off campus, over ten thousand under normal circumstances, and who test positive for the virus to quarantine in their homes in Ithaca and the surrounding region.

There is zero assistance from the school for testing for COVID 19 in the community in this plan.

In this plan the university utilizes professionals from the Cayuga Medical System, our local healthcare provider, presumably under ad hoc contracts, to conduct COVID 19 tests for their students but not for residents of the region.

This is a plan to have the town and region absorb the most viral spread possible delivered from the school without the school's assistance.

Our community needs the media, the courts and our representatives to say clearly to Cornell, "This is a plan based on greed. We are all in this pandemic together and you, Cornell University President Margaret Pollack and the Cornell University Board of Trustees, must develop a new public health plan in tandem with the local and regional community and our community service professionals and leaders for how we emerge from the pandemic, improve public health and keep the economy afloat".


Cornell has the potential to and should match the operating budgets of the organizations in the community offering residents and students services that foster good public health and respond to crisis. They should commit to sustaining these organizations' work beyond the virus in order to ensure that our community winds the next environmental catastrophe with the same or better dignity and compassion.

They should pay a routine fine, sometimes thought of as a tax, for the continued health of the natural ecology that their school uses including the lake which cools their buildings, the forests which care for and provide their students' recreation, and the local crops that feed their researchers and fill their agricultural laboratories.

Most importantly, they must be stopped from enacting this plan either by conscience or injunction.

This pandemic cannot be solved by a corporate strategy. It must be negotiated by a democratic movement that understands local density intimately. The cost for ignoring this truth will be vulnerable and marginalized peoples' lives at the hands of the virus in the name of profit for the university.

Ri Bornstein
Ithaca, NY