Life on the Hilltop in 2020: Masks, online courses, and a powerful new block calendar

Students were smiling behind their masks when they returned to the Hilltop this fall. After six months away, including two blocks learning online, most students were ready to return despite a global pandemic.

2-masked-students-in-adirondaksEight hundred seventy-five of the 1,002 Cornell College students enrolled during Block 1 lived on campus. Mitigation to allow for physical distancing was in place in every building and each classroom. Staggered class and dining schedules were in place to minimize the size of groups gathered at one time. In Block 1 only five courses were offered in-person. Another 15 courses were online, and 47 were hybrid (online and in-person).

COVID-19 signage was ubiquitous across campus.

The campus was in phase 3 of a five-phase approach to returning to campus, based on guiding principles and data provided weekly by a faculty-student research team. Our ability to remain on campus will hinge on a community-wide effort, where each member signs a pledge to be invested in the health of everyone on campus. Each block, we are testing 200 to 300 asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff, as well as anyone reporting symptoms through our daily symptom checker or identified through contact tracing. The rapid response tests provide early warnings of possible outbreaks.

Bold steps

Students-Outdoor-distancingThe changes on campus since the pandemic emerged in March are unprecedented—beginning with a pivot to online learning for the first time.

During the initial days and weeks of the pandemic, Cornell extended spring break to build an infrastructure for online learning. We asked every student who could, to stay home for the rest of the school year. Except for a few essential employees, staff worked from home.

Within about 18 days—because we can do anything in 18 days—our Office of Information Technology used its skills to enable students around the world to access online class content. Faculty reinvented their courses. We increased communications with students and their parents, being transparent about what we didn’t know but were still working on.

Meanwhile, faculty rethought the block calendar.

We needed to extend the flexibility of the block plan for the next two years during which we anticipated disruptions from the pandemic. Incoming Provost Ilene Crawford ’92 and then-Dean Joe Dieker brought forth a bold plan for a 10-block flex plan. Faculty approved the plan in under a week.

Old-Sem-COVID-signageTwo summer flex blocks were added to the eight-block academic year, offering students the opportunity to drop in and out of the school year as needed. The 10-block flex plan also makes it possible for students to graduate a semester or a year early, and prepares the college to program for nontraditional and part-time students, which has been challenging in the past.

“By adopting this plan we have been proactive, rather than reactive, and have begun to reimagine Cornell in a future that would forever be changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to our 42 years on the block plan, we’ve been able to do what virtually no other school can do. And, as other schools explore models like the block plan, we are able to benefit from our 42-year head start,” wrote President Jonathan Brand and Senior Marketing Director Jen Visser in a presidential white paper.

Cornell became a resource for other schools, a number of whom adopted a modified block schedule for fall 2020. It turns out the block plan is a powerful and nimble mode of education in a pandemic—students can be on or off campus as the situation dictates, and hands-on courses can move to blocks when students are in the classroom. And, students are with just one cohort per month, usually 14 other students, based on our average class size. At a large university students take classes with hundreds of others in an average week.

Several faculty even were able to refocus their courses to address the pandemic. 

The investments made in 90 days in response to a pandemic ultimately strengthened Cornell.

Costs and celebrations

COVID-signThe college lost over $1 million in refunds to students for room and board in spring alone, while costs to upgrade technology initially totaled $121,000. We secured just under $4.5 million in a forgivable loan from the federal Small Business Administration, and received about $422,500 in CARES emergency funding for students. An additional $422,500 of CARES funding was awarded to Cornell for operations costs.

We also created our own Cornell Cares fund, supported by alumni and other donors, to help mitigate the financial burdens to our students and families as they studied remotely.

The community celebrated the Class of 2020 with the college’s first Virtual Commencement, which reached a larger audience than could an in-person commencement. Professor of Theatre Scott Olinger created an outdoor show that featured the faces of every member of our graduating class projected on College Hall or Norton Geology Center. “I just hope that they understand that we really do miss them,” Olinger told KCRG, the local ABC-TV affiliate. “That the faculty and the staff and the administrators miss them terribly. We care about them. We want to celebrate their achievements.”

Over the summer approximately 15 task forces and subcommittees worked to develop plans and contingencies. We significantly modified how we safely learn, live, work, dine, socialize, and compete on campus (the Midwest Conference suspended all league competition through 2020).

“Cornell has been educating students since 1853 and has weathered many difficult times throughout our history. We will also weather the current pandemic,” wrote Brand and Visser in their white paper. “It has been exhilarating, joyful, and, yes, a bit exhausting for the entire campus. There are many uncertainties ahead, yet we feel prepared to meet them—we know we are a community of Cornellians who will rise to the challenge of changing conditions and keep our Cornell spirit, and quality of education, alive.”

Read the other stories in this series:

A small college with big data

One online course at a time

Cornellians respond

The 1918 pandemic