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COVID-19 outbreak shuts down Cornell's Ithaca campus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Alert level red - high risk. That is the current COVID-19 infection status at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. More than 900 students have tested positive in the last 10 days, prompting school officials to close campus, move final exams online and cancel a graduation ceremony that was scheduled for the weekend. To find out how students are holding up, we are joined now by Anuli Ononye. She's a senior at Cornell, where she serves as the student assembly president.

Anuli, hi there. Welcome.

ANULI ONONYE: Hi. Thank you so much for having me today.

KELLY: So I guess we're talking to you from home. You had to go home, as have many students who tested negative. How did the news go down, that campus was closing again?

ONONYE: Yeah. So it actually happened pretty quickly. So we got updates on Thursday and Friday that cases were going up. And then Saturday we got a more kind of firm email. I ended up going home on Sunday, just knowing that cases were rising. And then we got the close on Monday - yesterday...

KELLY: Yesterday.

ONONYE: ...As you all heard about it. Yes.

KELLY: Yeah. And what are you hearing from the 900 students who have tested positive - and, I guess, others like roommates who might have been exposed and are going to have to quarantine - how are they coping?

ONONYE: Yeah. I would say the biggest thing is this kind of came at a hard time - bad timing with exams happening this week and last week as well. I would say the biggest thing for me and just for students on campus is making sure that we're prioritizing mental health. Everyone knows it's hard to quarantine, but I think the campus is taking it on well.

KELLY: Do you think this was the right call?

ONONYE: I definitely think it was. I think it's really important to prioritize people's physical well-beings over anything. And I just want to make sure that students are safe on campus.

KELLY: Yeah. I guess I'm trying to figure out how this happened. I gather you all have weekly testing in place. There's a mask mandate. Ninety-seven percent of the student body is vaccinated. Have administrators said anything about how they think cases have come to rise so fast?

ONONYE: No. So we don't have any word, exactly. But I would say my guess is that, just, a lot of students went home for Thanksgiving, so I think it was brought back onto campus. For the most part, this year has been really good. We've had really low cases. And I do think that our vaccine mandates and social distancing and everything that we're doing on campus has been working.

KELLY: Yeah - except you're home.

ONONYE: Yes.

KELLY: Everybody's home.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I mean, is there this sense that this is just never-ending? You just don't know from week to week kind of where it's going to go.

ONONYE: I have no idea. I'm really optimistic. I'm hoping that we get - I'm a senior, so I'm hoping my next semester is near normal. It's felt a lot more normal this year but, of course, we never know. And I think, like I said, making sure that students are safe is always the university's biggest priority.

KELLY: Absolutely, although this has got to hurt senior year and thinking of all the milestones and events I'm sure you're looking forward to. Have they told you anything about spring semester? It's supposed to start - when? - towards the end of January?

ONONYE: Yep. So spring semester starts at the end of January. We haven't had any updates from the university yet. So I still have my fingers crossed for that, but we'll hear more.

KELLY: Yeah. If campuses open, you'll go back?

ONONYE: Yes, I will.

KELLY: And tell me about the conversation just among your roommates. Just - I'm just curious how the students are reacting to this.

ONONYE: Yeah. So I live alone, but I am an RA, so I do work, like, directly with students in residential life. I would say that, obviously, students are quarantining right now. There's been a lot of shutdowns, so I think, like, that's definitely hard on students. I think everyone who had the opportunity to leave the Ithaca area definitely has taken that up. But I think right now it's prioritizing the students who are on campus and making sure that they're doing well, especially if they're having to quarantine during the holidays...

KELLY: Yeah.

ONONYE: ...Which is pretty hard.

KELLY: And I'm curious what the conversation is among freshmen who are at a very different end of this experience and having a really unusual introduction to college.

ONONYE: Yep. I would say I experienced that firsthand with my brother, who's currently a sophomore now. But he came onto campus in the height of the pandemic to Cornell. And just working with, like, our freshmen representatives from the student assembly and everything like that, I'd say they're definitely disheartened.

KELLY: Yeah.

ONONYE: But they're doing well.

KELLY: Hanging in there. Well, I wish you happy holidays and that you stay well and that you're back on campus soon.

ONONYE: Thank you so much.

KELLY: That's Anuli Ononye, Cornell University Student Assembly President and senior.

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(SOUNDBITE OF , "") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.