04/29/2020 COVID-19 Staff Forum | Questions AND Answers
Of the questions asked during the COVID-19 Staff Forum on 4/29/2020, the following were responded to by members of the University Administration:
Can you take some time to discuss how furloughs and layoffs will affect benefits such as retirement, health insurance, the Cornell Children's Tuition Scholarship, etc.? Would furloughed staff be eligible for these benefits?
MARY OPPERMAN: So let me just try to set out what the different options are. So when someone is furloughed, that's a short-term layoff between two periods of employment. We have made the decision where we can, for ongoing staff, to continue their benefits. So they will continue in the benefits that they were enrolled in, except for those that are salary-dependent. So that will include all of the benefits that they are currently enrolled in.
Programs like shared work, if we were to do that, shared work is the same. We would continue the benefits because they would remain on payroll, albeit not for full-time, if we were to go in that direction. And then it would depend on the other circumstances as to whether benefits would continue. So lots of different iterations of what happens with benefits.
Ithaca College announced a plan on April 13th to begin reducing the size of its workforce through voluntary steps, including a one-time early retirement incentive. Is Cornell looking at any incentives to encourage early retirement?
MARY OPPERMAN: We are looking at everything and we have taken nothing off the table, so more to come on that. I will say that as we look at them, we do the cost benefit analysis of each program so that we are both being as open as possible to programs that we think will be helpful to staff, but also ones that respond to the very real financial situation that we have. But right now, everything is on the table. We're looking at everything.
This question is for Joanne DeStefano. As the chair of the Committee on Research and Operations Reactivation, can you provide some information on what metrics you will use, inclusive of federal and state guidelines, to determine when to reactivate our research and related campus operations? Is there a general timeline for decision-making?
JOANNE DESTEFANO: So the three committees that were established have three different deadlines. The Research and Operations Committee that I'm working on, our reports are due May 15th. Our reports will go to the Provost Committee, where they're looking at the startup of the University.
In the Provost Committee, they're looking at two pieces of it. One, the health of what obligations we need to follow as we open up the committee, or open up the University, and the other is on the teaching and student life. The health aspects will evaluate whether it's testing before you come to work or contact tracing or other types of tests. Their recommendations are due by June 15th. So most likely, decisions on what's going to happen in the fall will come together after the June 15th date.
We are paying very close attention to the federal guidelines and New York State guidelines, and also, we would probably customize-- and Anne can probably answer this one better than me-- of what we feel is the risks on our campus, and then we would set our own standards at that time.
In Martha's COVID update, you mentioned an estimated $145 million in additional financial aid. How is this $145 million calculated? When will we get a sense of the actual financial impact?
JOANNE DESTEFANO: So I can take that one. So a person by the name of Dan Robertson in our Institutional Research & Planning organization has been modeling our financial aid expenses for quite some time, and he has decades worth of data. And the one thing that is true is financial aid costs tend to run along with unemployment. So the projections for financial aid are based on projected unemployment rates over the next couple of years.
And there's such a tight correlation that that's where we can predict this year will be different than other years, and that we would normally know what our financial aid costs are for the incoming class by August, but given the fact that people's economic situations are changing, we expect quite a bit of waiver requests. So we may not know what our real fiscal year 2021 costs will be until partway through the fall semester.
Several peer Ivy League institutions have turned down federal CARES Act funds to support students. Given the anticipated increased financial aid demands, will Cornell University turn down federal CARES Act funds?
JOEL MALINA: I can handle that. Just for everyone's benefit, the CARES Act had a number of components. A lot of attention in the press has been focused on the Paycheck Protection Program, which is a fund where small businesses are able to apply for forgivable loans.
What we are talking about in this question is a separate fund called the Education Stabilization Fund. This was included in the legislation that was enacted earlier this spring as a way to help all colleges and universities around the country address some immediate emergency needs on the part of their students.
This wasn't funding that anyone applied for. We were essentially able to look at a very extensive list of every college and university. And there was a formula that Congress established, which, appropriately, was focused on a consideration of how many low-income students an institution has. I think 75% of the allocation was based on Pell grants students, and Cornell has the largest number of Pell Grant students in the Ivy League. 25% of the allocation was based on student population, and again Cornell is the largest.
So according to that formula, we were allocated $12.8 million. I should say that there are very specific limitations, in terms of how and when and for what you can use those funds for, and those are analyses that are still under way, but we have made clear our intent to use 100% of those funds, to the extent we end up receiving them, to go toward the needs of our students. This goes beyond what the legislation said, which was 50% should be going toward that, with the other 50% towards more institutional needs. We're really seeing this as a way to help our student population that's in most in need, as they and their families are struggling to get through this crisis.
Because Cornell is in New York State, prospective students, especially those beyond the Northeast, foreign students might incorrectly think Cornell's Ithaca campus is in the middle of the US pandemic epicenter. when, in fact, Ithaca is far from New York City and has been infected to a far lesser extent. This misconception might affect matriculation decisions. Is the University doing anything to manage this misperception among admitted students but not yet matriculated students?
ANNE JONES: I can take a first stab at that, and others may want to chime in. So our colleagues and admissions in the colleges, and centrally speaking, I know have been communicating rigorously with our students, given that our students can't do what they normally do, which is come for visits and do all those kinds of things. And so I think they're doing a good job of keeping that clarity there.
I do want to let you all know that our best barometer of whether or not our newly admitted students are going to come to Cornell is when they submit their housing deposits and basically sign up to be a part of the housing process. And we are trending ahead of plan from previous years, in terms of the number of students who have already committed to come to Cornell-- new students, new incoming students-- to come to Cornell for the fall.
Is there any concern about individuals coming to Tompkins county to their summer homes and increasing rates of infections here in this community?
MARY OPPERMAN: So I think Joel has been working with the local community, and the local community actually has gotten together to try to think about exactly these sorts of things. And if Joel were on, he would be able to tell you more about what they've been doing, but I know they're in regular conversation about the community and about the impending summer changes and the like. I apologize. I can't get do Joel justice on this question.
ANNE JONES: I can jump in, from a public health perspective, and say that that type of strategic approach to reopening a community is part of what is necessary at this time, looking at those various scenarios and risks and benefits, and yes, underscoring the collaborations that are going on with the many entities in the local community to tackle questions just like that. So yeah.
Many workplaces have realized significant savings, lower energy costs, vast reduction in office space, office supply usage due to the shift to work from home arrangements. With the additional benefit of reduced pollution from fewer cars on the road, etc., for those reasons, the city of Buffalo, for instance, is taking steps to shift to a more permanent work from home footing for many of its employees, even after the virus abates and normal operations resume. Would Cornell consider such a change for staff who are able to work from home to realize similar financial savings and environmental gains over the long run?
MARY OPPERMAN: I am so glad whoever asked that question asked that question. The answer is yes. That's part of the planning, under Joanne's charge, that we're looking at right now. I started my comments by saying, keep in mind that right now we're working at home through a crisis, which differs from ongoing remote work strategies.
So we have a little team in place that's looking right now at ways we might employ a more assertive approach to remote work. We do think that there's opportunities here for us and for our workforce to think about how we interact on the campus and also do our work remotely that can both save in travel expenses and also energy, as well as reduce the footprint on the campus so that we have available space for some of our other academic and research opportunities that will ultimately help us pursue our mission of advancing the public good.
So that's a long answer to a great question, and the answer is, yes, we are. We really do think this time has shown us that we can get a lot of work done this way. And again, keep in mind that we're doing it with really severe limitations about really needing to stay in the home, as opposed to a remote work strategy, which gives more flexibility to us in our movements. So yes.
What criteria is being used to decide furloughs? Is there general guidance that's being provided to colleges and units, i.e. seniority, job performance evaluations, attendance, etc.?
MARY OPPERMAN: So I'm sorry, I thought I had answered this in my opening remarks, but let me do this again. So let me first of all say that colleges and units are not acting independently to decide furloughs. We have purposely, and under the guidance of the president of the University, made our intention to be very limited in the use of furloughs clear. So we understand where work has dissipated, and we understand where the money that pays for those positions has also dissipated. Those conversations occur at the institutional level before any actions are made.
I also want to say one other thing, which is I am so incredibly grateful to be part of a leadership team where the well-being of the staff has remained absolutely at the forefront of every conversation. So as we decide what to do, we are testing each and every strategy against the impact it has on our people. And I feel like sometimes that's hard to share, especially because we're not all together, but it is not just my voice. It is a symphony of voices and all in agreement, and that includes the deans and the vice presidents and the top leadership.
It seems clear that the actions we have all been taking are successful in reducing the exponential increase in COVID-19 infections and fatalities. Since prior to vaccine, there is no immunity outside those who have survived the virus. Is it likely that reopening nationally will cause a significant resurgence of the pandemic and a threat to our Cornell community?
JOEL MALINA: I'll take that. And let me apologize. I was frozen for a little bit earlier. Thank you. I understand, Mary, you jumped in. But I think the answer to this question is this is really what our planning committee process will bring to the fore. We need to understand, what are the various concerns and possibilities, and how can we then establish various reopening parameters to minimize, if not completely erase, those potential setbacks?
So I think especially our committee and the subcommittee looking at public health implications of restarting will be working closely with our county health department with Cayuga Medical Center to try to understand where those vulnerabilities may be so that we can mitigate them.
RICK BURGESS: I'll just jump in on that one. Sorry, just to add to that one. I think it's important for folks to understand that there is no zero-risk scenario. So we and many others are trying to figure out how to at a lower the risk to the point where it's reasonable and life can proceed with an acceptable amount of risk.
But there's no zero-risk scenario, and certainly for people whose life situation is now endangered by the fact that they've lost their job, they lost their business and everything, there's plenty of risk to continuing the shutdown. So this is really all about smart risk and smartly balancing things. And just as Anne spoke to the measures that we took, what are the right measures to retain and how long do we retain those going forward and getting to, really, an acceptable trade-off?
MARY OPPERMAN: Before we go on, Anne, did you want to add anything?
ANNE JONES: Well, certainly to underscore the balancing of risk sentiment around this question. And I think that what's emerging in the public health literature is a consensus that there needs to be a strategy that each community develops around either reopening, at what time to reopen, and then what strategy to use to reopen the community so that the number of individuals that are affected are kept at a low rate.
There are various approaches that are being looked at in the literature now, various combinations of using a PCR test, the one that's available now, along with, or in combination with, or sometimes or, the antibody test, that that's the test that's being developed now, and is, with every day, rising in its sensitivity and specificity, precision and accuracy metrics, as more and more developers are increasing quality control.
As those testing options become available, part of the calculation for each community is determining at what point would social distancing measures be relaxed, at the same time rising up an expansive testing capacity that could then determine individuals able to safely enter the environment. And so the question being asked, could there be a risk to individuals of relaxing social distancing requirements before a vaccine is available, the answer to that is yes, there could be.
But part of what a public health reopening approach is to look at what those capacities are, look at the risks involved, as they're being mentioned, and then determine the right approach for each local community. Again, there is no one cookie cutter approach. There is no one recovery plan that could work for every single community, but it's about looking at what options become available and what becomes right for this community.
How are classrooms going to be reconfigured when students return to comply with social distancing? Are large classes, such as the one class, is going to be divided into sections?
RICK BURGESS: Well, I'll take a crack at that one, and then maybe Joanne wants to pile on. We don't have the people from the group that are actually looking in that specific topic on this call. Joanne referred to the three committees, and the Operations and Research Committee is not specifically looking at that aspect.
Now, if that other group comes up with particular recommendations that might come over to facilities and campus services to be implemented, then that's how I would jump in, and we have designers that could help with potential design solutions to look at that. So that is something that they are considering. We have some number of classes that meet in large classrooms.
There's been a lot of discussion, just in the recent years since I got here, about gateway classrooms and how we can make them more effective. The prospect of having 500 students in an auditorium, now from a health point of view, isn't very attractive. So I know that other group will be looking at that and how we adjust, pedagogy, and physical setting to account for that.
JOANNE DESTEFANO: Yeah, I agree with what Rick said. So Vice Provost Lisa Nishii is chairing the committee that's looking at the classroom size, and we'll also be working with Ryan's team on even how students, the number of bathrooms available, and such, so more to come on all of that.
In her email last Wednesday, President Pollack said Provost Kotlikoff, Executive Vice President DeStefano, and Vice President Opperman will provide more details on our financial situation later this week. There was not another similar mass mailing. Is there any update at this time in regards to this update, or can you provide a financial update?
MARY OPPERMAN: So let me start and then I'm going to turn to Joanne. Yes, when we had originally put that memo out, the intention at that point was to follow up with more detail. What we realized is that rather than give a written update, we felt it was better to do an open forum as a way to both tell you what we know today and also to allow you to ask your questions.
So understand that that may not have been as clear as it could have been, but we got together to try to write something and thought, these are so effective. We called the EA and asked them if they would just sponsor one more. So Joanne, I don't know if you want to add anything.
JOANNE DESTEFANO: No, I totally agree with what Mary just said. The other thing is part of our financial strategy to solve some of the problems has been to go out and issue more debt in the public markets and buy liquidity through more lines of credit and such. And putting out in writing all of our financial issues at a time when we're trying to bring in liquidity to solve our problems at the lowest cost to the University just doesn't feel right. And we are actually going out for some more debt this week before the end of this week. So as Mary said, having this more face to face, in-person Q&A we felt was the right approach.
Will testing be available for students upon returning for fall? When and how will Cornell coordinate testing, whether for positive cases or antibodies for staff and faculty during the phase of reopening?
RYAN LOMBARDI: I'll start, and then maybe Anne, if you want to say anything. These are all the questions that the committees are examining right now, as have been mentioned. So we certainly know there are challenges and steps that will need to be overcome to welcome our students back in mass. We know that testing is certainly one of those issues that's on the table, so the committees are currently reviewing how that could be done most effectively along the way. But Anne, you want to add anything there?
ANNE JONES: Sure, just to say that, yes, we are actively and rapidly looking at testing options. We at Cornell Health, in particular, are always examining what new tests are becoming available, assessing their applicability to our population, and then implementing them appropriately. We try to use high quality evidence-based, as well as regulatory approvals, to make sure that we're working with the testing that makes most sense, both from a public health strategy, but also for accurate clinical diagnosis. And as Ryan said, the determination of that overall reopening strategy, along with testing, what the approach testing will be will drive those decisions from a principled approach.
RYAN LOMBARDI: And some of the work that the committees are doing is looking at a cadenced approach to returning students to campus, et cetera, so that things, like testing that Anne has just spoken about and this question was about, would be more manageable as well. So all those types of things on the table that are being worked through right now.
Has there been any conversation in regards to FSA funds that are not able to be used due to COVID-19? For example, those who have set aside dependent care funds for daycare of summer camps will not be able to use those funds by the deadline if camps and care centers do not open. Will these individuals lose said money?
MARY OPPERMAN: Thank you for asking that. And just a reminder, on the Flexible Spending Accounts, these are offered but under federal regulations, so we can't make changes to them unless they're permitted by those regulations. On the Flexible Spending Account for medical, currently there is no regulatory assistance regarding those deadlines, so kind of as is on the Flexible Spending Account for medical. But a reminder that $500 of your unused balance automatically carries over into 2021.
On the Flexible Spending Account for dependent care, we have some good news to report. People can change their dependent care on a go forward basis now, and the money they've already contributed they can submit for expenses with service dates in 2020 and service states through March 15. We've communicated this information to everyone with a Flexible Spending Account for dependent care via email yesterday and explained that they'll have an opportunity to again change back those accounts later in the year when their childcare needs change back.
So I will say that Gordon Barger, our head of benefits and administration, gave me this update this morning and said that people are already responding and completing the required paperwork. So if I just take a minute to thank Gordon and his team for staying on this and getting it out to people. We hope this will be helpful.