Cornell University Omicron Outbreak: What It Means for Domestic and International Students

Cornell University in Upstate New York was placed on a "high risk" alert on Tuesday, with all final exams either moved online or rescheduled and several facilities closed on its Ithaca campus, following suspected cases of the Omicron variant.

Travel warnings and advisories are in place for both domestic and international students.

The university, which had nearly 25,600 students enrolled for its fall 2021 semester, moved to "COVID-19 Alert Level Red" after evidence of the variant was identified in a "significant number" of positive cases reported on Monday, December 13, the president of Cornell, Martha E. Pollack, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, stated that extensive surveillance testing on Monday revealed the "likely early and rapid spread of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 among our student population," the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

"While preliminary, initial screening results indicate that the variant now accounts for a very high percentage of our positive COVID-19 cases," Malina added.

There were 276 new infections recorded on Monday, while 883 student cases were reported in the past week from December 7 to 13.

A red alert level indicates a "significant increase in incidence with limited quarantine, isolation and/or local hospital capacity," according to the school's COVID-19 dashboard.

Pollack explained: "I want to make clear that our evidence of Omicron is preliminary.

"While we must await confirmatory sequencing information to be sure that the source is Omicron, we are proceeding as if it is," she stated, announcing a series of measures in response to the suspected outbreak.

Here, we look at some of the latest COVID-19 guidelines in place at Cornell University.

Rules For Domestic Students

Before leaving the university campus, students are required to complete their "Departure Checklist," which entails getting tested for COVID-19. Tests can be scheduled via the university website.

The university's statement on Tuesday advised that students who have not tested negative in the past 48 hours should get a supplemental test as soon as possible.

"Students are encouraged to stay in Ithaca, in their residences, until their test results are received, and severely limit interactions with others during that time," the school said.

Students residing on campus who test COVID-19 positive will receive assistance to securely isolate themselves for the required 10-day period until they receive approval from the Tompkins County Health Department to travel safely.

Visitors and guests are not allowed on campus, except for those picking up students for the school break. Such parties are asked to remain "continuously masked" while on campus.

Students are advised to avoid non-essential contact with others and to be more vigilant by wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands.

Rules For International Students

In an alert on December 3, the university warned some international students may be impacted by the travel restrictions announced on November 26 by Joe Biden.

The presidential proclamation restricts entry to the U.S. for non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents who were physically present in the countries listed below in the two weeks prior to their entry to the U.S.:

  • Botswana
  • Eswatini
  • Lesotho
  • Malawi
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • South Africa
  • Zimbabwe

U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents are not subject to the latest travel restrictions and other exceptions apply. However "at this time, no exceptions have been announced for student or scholar visa holders," the school said.

"Please be aware of these restrictions as you make plans to travel to or transit through those countries, since it could be difficult to reenter the U.S.," the university warned.

Noting that "recent and possible future Omicron travel restrictions" may impact break plans for students who live on campus, the school's winter break housing application will remain open at the university website. The housing rate for the winter break is $1,225 and a meal plan is available for $675.

The school's Office of Global Learning will continue to monitor the travel situation for students and provide updates, the university said.

Exams Moved Online

All final exams were moved to an online format from noon on December 14. Some exams that are yet to be scheduled in person "may be able to switch immediately to an online modality," while others may need to be rescheduled.

More information about exams will be shared in the academic policies section on the school's COVID-19 website as soon as possible.

Facilities Closed

Libraries, fitness centers and gyms are closed to students. Those who normally access the university's dining facility are "strongly encouraged" to opt for a "grab-and-go" meal. Those who want to eat near others are advised to do so at a distance.

Offices and labs remain open but undergraduate students "should not participate in any work-study or lab work," the university said.

Events Canceled

All university activities involving undergraduates have been canceled, including events and social gatherings. All university-sponsored events, including winter celebrations, were also canceled.

The December 18 graduation ceremony as well as the athletics competitions on Sunday have also been canceled, the school said Tuesday.

Signage at Cornell University in New York.
Signage at Cornell University in New York, pictured in July 2013. Yiming Chen / Contributor via Getty Images