COVID Cornell

Fall color is showing itself on the steep hills rising up from Lake Cayuga, which stretches north from the city of Ithaca in the middle of New York State. The Ice Age glaciers carved the long, deep lake as they departed the region some 10,000 years ago. They are unlikely to return any time soon.

Even if arctic blasts are increasingly rare in warming Upstate New York, those reddening maples confirm that it will eventually be getting colder here, even if this weekend’s temperatures are forecast to flirt with 80 degrees.

“High above Cayuga’s waters” begins the alma mater of Cornell University which spreads across the bluffs at the southern tip of the lake. The students have been back since the beginning of September when classes started, though many arrived a month earlier to take up their off-campus leases on the first of August.

The semester began later than usual this year as part of the university’s plan to deal with the pandemic. The administration rightly reasoned that if the university went completely on-line, the undergraduates would come back to Ithaca anyway, joining up with their friends off-campus, some bringing Covid with them and spreading it in the heat of summer and reunion with their pals. Cornell committed early to in-person instruction and worked hard to prepare a course roster and provide socially-distanced classrooms across its vast campus.

At the end of August, Governor Andrew Cuomo set a limit of 100 cases or 5% of the student population for colleges and university. If that limit was reached, the state mandated immediate shutdown and two weeks of exclusively on-line courses. Aside from a few early clusters attributable to the flouting of the rules by members of some sports teams, Cornell has not really been in danger of being temporarily shut down, even though its undergrad population numbers more than 15,000.

The culture at Covid Cornell is one of compliance—and surveillance. The administration has encouraged students to report violations. On September 2nd when classes began, a first-year student and posted a video on Snapchat of close-quartered, maskless get-together, adding the caption: “The people who slide up saying ‘you’re not social distancing’ are the ones that wouldn’t have been invited anyway.” College is a learning experience, and one thing to learn is not to advertise your crimes on social media.

Aside from attention to social-distancing, limits on gatherings, and mandatory masks, the lynchpin of Cornell’s Covid response has been testing: students, faculty, and staff who come to campus must get tested twice a week. That’s some 35,000 tests a week. Each Monday and Thursday I go to the gothic Sage Chapel, one of several testing sites across the 750 acre campus, and swab both my nostrils at one of the dozen plexi-glassed stations. The organ remains silent at the back of the chapel, though perhaps its blower and pipes would help to circulate the air. The instrument conjures images of weddings and funerals, and it is perhaps associations with the latter that gives rise to reluctance on the part of organ students and teachers to play their music in a testing site.

The season is full of paradoxes. Cornell’s fully virtual StayHomecoming starts today.

But the testing and other measures are working This week there have been just five new campus cases, all quickly quarantined.

Only a fraction of the faculty agreed to offer in-person classes, even if socially distanced, masked, with wipes and hand-sanitizer provided in quantity. Most students have only a single in-person class, otherwise Zooming in along with those who stayed at home with their parents.

Managing the people in the classroom—in my case two large windowless basement bunkers in the music building—and those beaming in from apartments on the campus periphery or from half-a world away has its challenges for Boomers like me. I’ve only knocked over the camera tripod once so far in the first six weeks at my battle station. Teaching from behind a mask is tiring, and not just because of the decreased intake of oxygen. Faces give much back to the lecturer or discussion leader. The generally slouched posture of seated students does not convey eagerness. Ironically, seeing the faces on Zoom seems much less “distanced.” But the routine of dutifully showing up in the bunkers does get one out of the house.

Cornell’s plan has it that we will teach in-person until mid-November, then take a two-week break of sorts to make the transition to fully on-line teaching after Thanksgiving. The students will return home where they’ll stay until February, when the spring semester starts after a longer-than-usual Winter Break. It is hoped that this calendar will minimize the effects of a second wave.

Until that transition, I clank around the mostly deserted music building on my long teaching days, mostly holed up in my office, then venturing down to one of the bunkers. Intermittently I seek air and daylight outside in the quad, which is mostly deserted. A few bemasked students, some in pairs, walk along the paths or sit on distant benches.

A large tent with open sides has been set up for pared down ensemble rehearsals. Singing is not allowed. Mostly the tent is vacant, though occasionally during the day I’ve seen local parents snatching a nap while their toddlers roam the temporary floorboards. Now and again I’ve spotted an instrumental duo in the tent or under a nearby tree. Some individual lessons are given, the musicians looking stranded, their music not reaching far beyond the tent stakes.

On Monday night this week I was late on campus and came across quad the after eight, darkness having set in an hour before. Members of the wind ensemble were rehearsing an arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, its spirited blasts racing across the empty lawns and echoing off the vacant buildings: The players wore special masks, but I didn’t venture closer to see how they worked, preferring to cling to the illusion that they were unencumbered. I stayed and listened from afar for some time, a few other pedestrian happening by on their way somewhere else. The sound of the music made me realize how little of it is now heard on campus:. The exuberant strains rang out into a desolate time and space.

It also made me realize how little open air music is made at Cornell when musicians are not forced outside by dire events or celebratory occasions. I thought of Claude Debussy’s utopian reflections on musique en plein air written at the beginning of the last century:

“Imagine a large orchestra augmented with the sound of the human voice. (No not a chorale society thank you!) Here would lie the embryo of music especially designed for the open air: new ideas glowing in broad lines from the orchestra and voices. It would float from the tops of the trees, through the light of the open air, and any harmonic progression that sounded stifled within the confines of a concert hall would certainly take on a new significance. The mysterious collaboration between air currents, the movement of leaves, and the perfume of flowers would combine together in a such a natural marriage with the music that it would seem to live in each one of them. … And the tall, still tree trunks would not be left out: they would be the pipes of a universal organ. Hordes of children would play on their branches, singing the rounds of yesteryear …”

The tent is going in a week. There will be no concert.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at