Martha E. Pollack and Michael I. Kotlikoff are, respectively, president and provost of Cornell University.

Universities are often depicted as giant covid-19 petri dishes — places where unruly 20-somethings become infected, spread the disease widely and are likely to power a second wave of infections in college towns and cities.

That portrait has some truth to it. We’ve already seen the coronavirus grip university communities this fall, forcing some to halt in-person instruction and migrate to online-only classes. And we’ve seen many universities decide not to open for in-person instruction at all in an attempt to avoid these nightmare scenarios.

Less dramatic, however, but all the more noteworthy are the stories of campuses getting in-person instruction right — those institutions using science and technology to keep their students and neighbors safe, all while advancing their educational missions.

For rural schools in Arizona, reopening campuses to provide essential services could mean bringing back hundreds of kids. Superintendents say they aren't ready. (The Washington Post)

These stories show not only that universities can remain safely operational during this pandemic but also that they can deploy their scientific knowledge and resources against a fast-spreading virus that threatens their communities. They demonstrate how to control the spread of covid-19 and permit more normal activity during this era of extreme uncertainty and challenge.

At Cornell, science informed our decision to invite students back to campus this fall. Our epidemiological models showed us that by opening our doors for instruction and implementing robust pooled testing and contact tracing programs, we could keep our infection rate lower than if we were strictly online, knowing that many of our students would return to our area anyway.

At least so far, the situation on our campus is in hand. We have had an extraordinarily low rate of infection: just 10 cases in all over the past two weeks within our campus community of about 9,000 faculty and staff, and about 19,000 students (out of our normal enrollment of 25,000). Since the beginning of classes at the start of September, we have had fewer than 100 cases in total. And we are not alone. Several peers, including Boston University, Duke University, Colby College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are also managing to keep infection rates low.

How are we doing this? We modified our classrooms, dining halls and study areas to ensure proper social distancing. We upgraded our ventilation systems, mandated mask-wearing on campus and created a public health campaign. Students were required to sign a behavior compact, and we stood up mechanisms to enforce it. Contrary to the assumptions of many, college students can adhere to these guidelines and, as our experience shows, take enormous pride in doing so.

But most important, we took the steps that are at the heart of any public health initiative to control infection: establishing robust programs for testing with rapid turnaround, contact tracing, and isolation and quarantine. We tested every student upon their return to campus. All of our undergraduate students are being tested twice per week, while graduate students, faculty and staff are being tested at varying rates, depending on the frequency and nature of their on-campus interactions.

Fighting an epidemic means stopping its spread. A student who tests positive is immediately put into isolation in a hotel room that the university pays for and where we provide support. We work with the county health department to conduct contact tracing, and we also immediately test everyone within the student’s social network. We are currently testing more than 30,000 individuals per week.

Understandably, our approach may not be feasible for every university. Cornell is fortunate to have the expertise and resources to create and support its own testing lab. And we recognize that the battle isn’t over. This virus is relentless, and it’s still possible for a superspreader event to occur.

Looking ahead, we also have put in place response mechanisms should cases spike. University leadership meets daily to evaluate the effectiveness of our programs and to respond quickly to any emerging issues: If we see a rise in cases, we can increase testing frequency or implement additional measures, depending on the source of infection. The confluence of influenza season, the Ithaca, N.Y., weather and precaution fatigue will require continuous vigilance. Yet we are confident that our science-driven approach, which relies on the combination of asymptomatic testing and transmission control, can keep our community safe.

Our experience so far has demonstrated the value of science as the basis for decisions that impact public health and safety. Students have proved themselves more than capable of acting responsibly. Those who find it easy to caricaturize our nation’s universities might indeed find much to learn from them.

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