EA forum discusses reactivation plans, diversity efforts

Cornell administrators presented updates on the university’s fall reactivation plans and answered a variety of submitted questions during a July 28 virtual open forum sponsored by the Employee Assembly.

The ongoing forums this summer, most of which have focused on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, have been “helpful to us and the entire community,” said Jason Cole, associate vice president for university relations. “We’re acutely aware of the impacts that [our] plans have, not only on our campus community … but also the impacts on the greater Ithaca-area community in which we all live.”

He added that Cornell’s Office of Community Relations has been hosting virtual town hall events and neighborhood meetings this summer with area residents, business leaders and local officials. A joint community event with representatives from Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College is being planned for mid-August.

Anne Jones, director of medical services for Cornell Health, addressed the recent uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tompkins County.

“What we have learned from the Tompkins County Health Department is the importance of reinforcing the message of wearing masks and physical distancing,” she said, “especially being thoughtful and mindful about doing those things as they relate to social gatherings.”

Hei Hei Depew, executive vice chair of the Employee Assembly, read nearly a dozen submitted questions from staff members, many of which centered on the specifics of COVID-19 testing for students, faculty and staff as Cornell finalizes its plans, guidance and public health directives ahead of reactivating the Ithaca campus for the fall semester.

Cole went over details of the required Daily Check and related testing for faculty and staff who have been cleared by a supervisor to return to work on campus. Student “arrival testing” began earlier this month and additional testing sites throughout campus will be opening soon, he said.

Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, said surveillance testing for staff and faculty on campus, in addition to the comprehensive student testing plan, also is being developed. Testing – both wide-scale surveillance testing and symptom-related testing on an individual basis – “is a really, really big part of our reopening strategy,” she said.

In response to a question about how strictly Cornell will reinforce safety measures, Cole described the public health campaign Cornell is preparing to roll out.

“It’s a robust public health campaign for everyone on campus – faculty, staff and students – and it will change and adapt over time,” he said. “It will continually reinforce and try to drive a culture of compliance around physical distancing, wearing masks, good hygiene, being responsible and an understanding that we’re all in this together.”

Early messaging for the campaign is expected to center on the safe reactivation of campus as students reenter, he said, and will then pivot to messaging about safe dining, working in labs and offices, and other daily guidance.

Vijay Pendakur, dean of students, spoke about the behavioral compact for students that the university also is preparing to release. The set of practices and guidelines, which will apply to individual students as well as student organizations, includes carefully enforced and detailed consequences for those found not in compliance; enforcement will be managed by a Cornell Compact Compliance team, he said.

“We want students to know that Cornell takes this very seriously and that serious infractions will have serious consequences, all the way up to a temporary suspension and or even potentially a separation from the institution,” Pendakur said.

Jones noted that compliance with public health guidance is something that “many organizations and employers, as well as the health care industry, are grappling with right now. We know that in terms of public health guidance, effective strategies for public health education and harm reduction can really go a long way in accomplishing what organizations hopefully aspire to do in the end – which is actually to improve behavior and improve morale among everybody in the population.”

During the forum, Angela Winfield, associate vice president for inclusion and workforce diversity, highlighted some of the recent work on race, anti-racism and programming that has been rolled out to staff (and which is still accessible on CU Learn).

A large-scale program for all staff about anti-racism, social identity, diversity, equity and inclusion is being planned for a September launch. Winfield said that program is “based on Cornell’s values.”

Also, “We’re looking at systems and structural change” through the Belonging at Cornell initiative, Winfield added, on which she continues to work with Avery August, vice provost for academic affairs, and Pendakur, all of whom serve as the university’s presidential advisers on diversity and equity. Additional programming, networking and group resources and information can be found on the university’s diversity site, she said, including Cornell’s Inclusive Excellence podcast.

The Employee Assembly’s 2020 Summer Series of staff feedback forums will continue Aug. 5. Videos and transcripts of the forums are posted online.

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