Campuses Say Their Fall Semesters Were Safe. One Student Felt Anything But.

Stella Linardi was stranded.

It was 1:30 a.m. on September 3, and the junior at Cornell University stood in the lobby of Cayuga Medical Center, in Ithaca, N.Y. The hospital had just sent her home with a flu diagnosis, but she was still waiting on the results of a Covid-19 test. She felt weak. Her body ached. And her phone was dead.

It was the night after the first day of classes during a semester that promised to be like no other. Cornell, like many colleges, had brought students back for in-person learning. The university had upgraded its ventilation systems and given coronavirus tests to each of the roughly 19,000 students who arrived on campus. But no one knew quite what to expect.

Linardi asked a woman at the front desk how to get home and was told to call a cab. When she responded that she couldn’t afford that, the woman gave her a blank stare. Unsure of what to do, Linardi plugged her phone into a charger that the woman had directed her to and tried not to breathe on a parent and child who were seated nearby. Her body felt heavy, and she was dizzy. When her phone finally came on, she called Cornell Health and asked for a ride.

“This is a medical hotline, not a transportation service,” Linardi remembers a voice telling her. She texted some friends, but most were asleep. After calling and texting for about half an hour, she reached a friend who called her an Uber. When she got in, she told the driver she had the flu, and he put his mask on. At 2:15 a.m., Linardi finally got home. She felt so weak that she had to crawl up the stairs to her apartment.

A day later, she logged on to her patient profile and saw that she’d tested positive for Covid-19.

The next two and a half weeks were a painful and terrifying blur that has left Linardi questioning whether she can stay at Cornell and pursue her ambitious goals: graduate early, study for the LSAT, apply to Harvard Law School. She is a DACA student and wants to become a lawyer so she can defend the rights of others. But that September, there were moments when she was worried that her illness would kill or permanently incapacitate her. She questioned whether Cornell had her best interests at heart.

For the university, Linardi’s case was an anomaly in a semester that went better than campus leaders thought it would. This fall, about 158 students tested positive for Covid-19 — a minuscule percentage, which the university chalks up to exhaustive planning and frequent testing. It had bet that it could keep students safer by having an in-person semester with twice-weekly testing, because it expected many students to return to Ithaca either way. And Cornell believes the gamble paid off. Administrators told The Chronicle that Linardi is the only student they know of who went to the hospital because of the virus.

One student out of 19,000. To a college, that ratio might seem proof of a job well done. To Linardi, it meant a harrowing few weeks — and lasting consequences.

Try as they might, no universities were fully prepared to operate in a pandemic. Even this fall’s success stories left vulnerable students at risk of falling through the cracks. Linardi almost did.

Maybe a college and university would be happy if only one student died from Covid,” Linardi says. “But that’s someone’s life, and that can be me.

Linardi’s path to a prestigious college was an improbable one. When she was 3, Linardi’s parents emigrated from Indonesia to escape the persecution of the Christian minority and ethnic Chinese there. They applied for citizenship and were rejected. Linardi’s father returned to Indonesia, but Linardi, her mother, and her brother stayed in Los Angeles. When she was 16, Linardi gained some protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Francisca Hermawan, Linardi’s mother, says her daughter worked hard and earned a full ride to Cornell. Hermawan was nervous about Linardi’s being all the way across the country at college. But when they got to Ithaca for the first time, in the fall of 2018, Hermawan felt reassured. The campus was beautiful, and she liked that it was in a college town, far from the distractions of a city. It seemed like a place where her daughter would be able to focus on her work.

“This is safe,” she remembered thinking. “Stella can study here.”

The model says most students won’t get sick, and most students won’t have severe symptoms. How did you account for us, the students that do have severe symptoms, in your reopening plan?

In 2020, the idea of sending Linardi back to Ithaca made Hermawan a little nervous. But she was comforted by the fact that all students would take coronavirus tests when they arrived on campus, and that students from states specified in New York’s travel advisory, would then quarantine for two weeks.

When Linardi got to Ithaca, in mid-August, she went to campus only once — to take her first Covid-19 test. During the next two weeks, she says, she spent most of her time in her off-campus apartment with three roommates. Students weren’t allowed to gather in groups larger than 10, and Linardi, who was afraid to break any rules because of her immigration status, noticed that students were exposing one another on social media when those rules were broken.

The first day of class was September 2. The same day, Linardi started feeling sick.

“It hit me like a brick,” she says.

She mostly slept, until a Zoom class at 12:40 p.m. Afterward she was so tired she went back to sleep. She tried to participate in a 3:15 Zoom lecture but was so exhausted she turned off her camera and slept more. She awoke that evening feeling disoriented and knew that something was seriously wrong. She called Cornell Health, the university’s medical service for students, and spoke with a nurse, who said she should go to the hospital, Linardi says.

Two of Linardi’s roommates dropped her off at Cayuga Medical Center, four miles from campus, where she waited for about three hours before she was given flu and Covid-19 tests. It was after she got a positive test result for the flu that Linardi found herself standing in the lobby with no way of getting back to her apartment.

The next day brought more confusion. The hospital prescribed Linardi antiviral medication for the flu and sent the prescription to the Cornell Health pharmacy. But Linardi, who was still waiting on her Covid-19 test results, didn’t think it was safe for her to go pick it up. She called Cornell Health and was told to ask a friend to get it for her. She also asked how to get food — Linardi is registered for the Cornell Food Pantry — and for that, too, she was told to rely on her friends.

The following morning, Linardi logged into her patient profile and saw that she’d tested positive for Covid-19 in addition to the flu. She called Cornell Health and told them. Soon after, a driver called to say he was outside her apartment building and would take her to Cornell Health. Linardi grabbed a few clothes and some toiletries and rushed downstairs. She got into a van that had a glass divider separating her from the driver.

When they got to Cornell Health, the driver told her to walk to a side door and call to be let in. She found the phone number on the door. A man answered. He told her that he wasn’t sure where she was supposed to be, Linardi says, and that he didn’t have her scheduled for an appointment. Linardi suggested that the driver take her to the Statler Hotel, where Cornell was housing students who needed to quarantine because they’d tested positive or had been exposed to the virus. The provider on the line “hesitantly” agreed, she says. The driver took her to the hotel, where she waited for about 15 minutes until her room was ready.

“What on earth is going on right now?” she thought when she finally got there. “Does anyone know?”

Linardi is a good student; she’s majoring in industrial and labor relations and has three minors: business, inequality studies, and law and society. She has balanced a near-perfect GPA with impressive jobs, like a summer internship in Senator Kamala Harris’s office in Los Angeles and a position as a research assistant at Cornell’s Worker Institute.

David Zentz for The Chronicle

Even this fall’s success stories left vulnerable students at risk of falling through the cracks. Stella Linardi almost did.

Cornell has even noted Linardi’s accomplishments in a legal brief to the Supreme Court, submitted in support of DACA when the Trump Administration unsuccessfully tried to rescind the program. “Because of DACA,” the university wrote, “Stella was able to intern for the California Labor Commissioner. This semester, she is putting that real-world experience to work while serving as a research assistant to a professor studying the gig-economy and digital hiring platforms. She aspires to someday become a lawyer.”

But in the first weeks of September, Linardi couldn’t attend a single class. Quarantining alone and sick, she struggled to navigate two health-care systems: the Tompkins County Health Department and Cornell Health. Her mother, still in Los Angeles, felt helpless and guilty that she’d let her daughter return to campus.
Once she got to the hotel, Linardi slept much of the time. When she was awake, she struggled to breathe. She felt a tightness in her chest and couldn’t smell or taste very well. As her first day there wore on, her symptoms worsened. She called Cornell Health, which told her she should go to the emergency room, Linardi says. She called the front desk of the hotel and asked to see a doctor but was told there wasn’t one available. Eventually the hotel called the Cornell University Police, and then an ambulance.

When Linardi told the EMTs that she felt dizzy and disoriented, they asked if she’d been drinking or doing drugs, Linardi says. They told her that older people need the hospital beds, she says, and encouraged her not to go to the emergency room, telling her that she was young and healthy and would probably be fine.

Linardi felt as if she were being shamed for asking for their care. At their request, she signed a waiver saying that she didn’t want to go to the hospital. She was later charged $190 for the ambulance.

Three days after that, still at the Statler Hotel, she felt her symptoms worsening. She couldn’t catch her breath. She called a friend who FaceTimed with her while they did breathing exercises. They watched a boring movie on Netflix — Linardi can’t remember which one — so that she could be distracted but wouldn’t want to laugh or cry.

Again, Linardi asked the front desk if there was a doctor in the hotel who could see her, and again she was told there was not. She called Cornell Health and was told to go back to the emergency room. She did, in another ambulance, and had blood drawn for more tests. She stayed there for about five hours. At one point, someone put a board behind her, told her to take her glasses off, and flashed a light, but she didn’t know why. It was an X-ray.

“I have never had an X-ray done or really gone to the doctor’s for more than a physical checkup,” Linardi says. “There was no way of me knowing what was going on.”

Hermawan, Linardi’s mother, called the medical center to try to get information about her daughter’s condition, but says she was told that because Linardi wasn’t a minor, her medical information could not be released. So Hermawan relied on frequent text messages and phone calls from Linardi to stay informed. If she couldn’t reach her daughter because she was asleep, Hermawan would text her to call when she woke up. She questioned whether her daughter really was safe on the other side of the country.

“If I lose contact with Stella,” Hermawan wondered, “who do I call?”

Linardi was feverish, exhausted, and often disoriented. But she was also fed up from being passed back and forth between hotel and hospital, with a sense that her sickness wasn’t being taken seriously. In her Cornell coursework she had learned that institutions can replicate the injustices that exist in a society. She thought of one of her classes, about societal inequality. “That was the one that really made me reflect on my life,” she says, “and how inequalities are explicitly or inadvertently perpetuated by microcosms, like colleges and universities.”


Courtesy of Stella Linardi

Entry for September 16, 2020, in Stella Linardi’s diary at Cornell U.

She felt wronged and wondered if part of the reason was that, as a first-generation student with DACA status, she was not typical of Cornell’s population. Maybe, she thought, she was caught in a system that wasn’t designed for her. She felt that she needed to fight back.

On the night of her second visit to the emergency room, Linardi hit the livestreaming button in her Instagram app and filmed herself from her hospital bed. Medical machines buzzed behind her.

“It’s really hard for me to make this,” she said through tears. “Now my breathing’s hard and my chest is tight.”

It wasn’t the first post she’d made about her experience, but it attracted the biggest audience. She told The Cornell Daily Sun: “I am fighting for my life and my rights at the same time.” In a September 11 Zoom meeting meant to give quarantined students at the hotel a chance to voice their concerns, Linardi pressed Cornell Health and hotel administrators about her complaints.

She says Should this really be present tense because it’s what she’s asking the administrators on the call? -ngit worried her that there was only one doctor at the hotel. She said that she didn’t get any lunch one day, and that the front desk had told her some lunches had been stolen. And she wanted to know why students were getting inundated with surveys and calls from people asking about their symptoms. An administrator on the call said that students in the hotel were getting frequent calls and surveys so the doctor would know who needed his attention, and that someone would look into the missing lunches. Calls from both the county and the university were a lot for students to take, the administrator agreed, but both places had important reasons for collecting the information.

Linardi also wanted to know about how Cornell had planned for the campus reopening.

“The model says most students won’t get sick, and most students won’t have severe symptoms,” she said. “How did you account for us, the students that do have severe symptoms, in your reopening plan?”

The administrator on the call said that so far, the number of students infected hadn’t exceeded what was anticipated. In the second week of September, there were 34 active cases, Cornell officials say, a low number given how many students were on campus.

Cornell administrators tell The Chronicle that they heard and quickly responded to the problems that Linardi described. Michael I. Kotlikoff, the provost, discussed the issues in his daily meetings with the president, Martha E. Pollack.

“Part of what Stella experienced, I think, was our starting up what — you can imagine — is a logistically challenging endeavor,” Kotlikoff says, “and understanding where some of the unanticipated issues were.”

“I’m really sorry that’s the case,” he says.

The biggest issue he identified was transportation. He called Linardi’s experience getting to and from the hospital “unfortunate.” Now, Cornell’s transportation service handles such needs.

Anne Jones, director of medical services at Cornell Health, says the early part of the semester was hectic. Members of the medical team had spent months preparing for a surge that they knew would come. But once it happened, they learned quickly that there were problems they hadn’t anticipated.

“We did everything we could to prepare,” she says. “Some of the ways in which we prepared were the right thing, and other ways in which we needed to prepare, we adjusted.”

At first, Jones and other medical-staff members would go to the hotel from the Cornell Health building, five minutes away, to do rounds and see students as needed. But by early September the hotel had filled up, and some of the students were sick. Cornell Health started getting more-frequent calls and calls after hours. It had to use a second hotel to quarantine more students. About a week into the semester, the service decided to staff the Statler Hotel with clinicians full time and stocked the hotel with the medicines that students needed.

Jones declines to speak directly about Linardi’s case, because of privacy laws, but she says those changes were made during Linardi’s first week at the hotel. “We were hearing the needs the students were calling us with and letting us know about,” Jones says. “We’re grateful for people telling us what they need.”

Many Cornell students rallied around Linardi. Her roommates visited in the evenings to wave from the street while she looked down from her window. People sent her flowers and soap. Some students brought her clothes because she had so little with her — at the hotel, she’d been given Tide Pods and told to wash her clothes in the sink. Other students shared their complaints about staying at the hotel.

We did everything we could to prepare. Some of the ways in which we prepared were the right thing, and other ways in which we needed to prepare, we adjusted.

After she started complaining publicly, Linardi says, she got more attention. Her life for the next two weeks became a hazy cycle of sleep, attempts to eat, check-ins with the people trying to help her, and more sleep. She got regular calls from Tompkins County Health Department nurses, Cornell nurses, and a Cornell crisis manager. The doctor would visit to check her vitals. They all wanted to know whether her symptoms were improving and if she needed anything that she wasn’t getting.

Simple tasks were still complicated by the virus. When Linardi tried to take a shower, steam filled her lungs and she found it difficult to breathe. It felt like suffocating.

She was told she should drink electrolytes like Gatorade, but she didn’t know how to get it. She mentioned this predicament to the crisis manager, who offered to bring Gatorade to the hotel if Linardi didn’t get it by the following day. Other students brought Gatorade until eventually — almost a week later, she says — a nurse dropped off some electrolyte tablets that Linardi could add to her water.

In the midst of all this, she also received a troubling letter from the dean’s office. The September 9 letter said that someone had reported Linardi “as someone who failed to follow quarantine/isolation directives from Cornell Health on August 31, 2020 at a location listed as Sorority or Fraternity.”

Linardi was not being investigated, the letter said. The purpose was only to remind her of her responsibility to keep the community safe. She wrote back to say that yes, she had visited her sorority that day, but only to pick up her laundry basket. She’d gotten permission from the house mom to stop by, had worn a mask, and was there for only 10 minutes, she wrote to the dean’s office. An associate dean wrote back, thanking her for the clarification and saying she was “very sorry about the timing of this letter.”

It scared Linardi. She worried that someone had reported her because she’d been speaking up about her experience.

Things were piling up, but there was also a support system emerging to help. Linardi spoke with a psychiatrist because she was being treated for anxiety. On September 15, she told the psychiatrist that she sometimes felt that she wanted to give up.

“Do you feel like you’ll act on your thoughts?” the psychiatrist asked, according to a recording that Linardi shared with The Chronicle.

“No,” she said. “I feel like they just get me down.”

“What’s a reason that you don’t?”

“My housemates,” Linardi said. “They visit me every day to say hi from the window.”

On the same day, Linardi put on a yellow gown and walked out to a balcony of the hotel. It was the first time she had been outside in two weeks. Behind her blue medical mask and glasses, she smiled as the sun hit her face. When she saw people walk by on the sidewalk below, she laughed and waved.

Slowly, Linardi’s symptoms improved. The day after she went outside, Linardi told a Cornell doctor that she wanted to start attending her classes, all but one of which were being held virtually. The doctor told her to take it slow.

On September 21, Linardi wrote in her diary that she was feeling much better. It felt “like a switch was turned on and I’m suddenly ok,” she wrote. “Like, wait what just happened?”

The next day, she left the Statler Hotel and returned to her apartment. A month later, she flew home to Los Angeles with a plan to finish the semester remotely. When she left Ithaca, she wasn’t sure when, or if, she’d be back.

On a recent December morning, Linardi said she was working hard to get better. Back in California, she had enrolled in an intensive outpatient therapy program that includes nine to 12 hours of therapy a week. She had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Linardi is still feeling the physical and emotional tolls of being seriously ill and isolated from everyone she knew.

“I don’t think there’s been a single day since September 2 that I haven’t cried,” she said. Seemingly benign things bring her to tears. The other day, it was a bite of pasta, because her sense of taste hasn’t fully returned.

She’s still tired all the time, which has made her classwork difficult. Her professors have been very understanding, she said, and have told her that as long as she gets her work in by the end of the semester, she’ll be fine. She studies when she can.

When the spring semester starts, the pandemic is expected to be worse than it was in August. That worries Linardi. She’s talked with some people about subletting her room in her apartment and is considering doing an internship for credit instead of a regular semester. Or she might transfer to another college.

In the end, Cornell kept its numbers well below what its models predicted. The week before students went home for Thanksgiving break, the campus logged only 11 cases, with a test-positivity rate of 0.07 percent. The president and the provost felt confident enough in their approach that in late September they wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post with the headline, “We run Cornell. Here’s how we’ve kept low covid-19 rates on campus.”

But there is a different kind of loss, one that will be harder to measure. At the very least, the university has lost the trust of Linardi, a student whom Cornell once held up as exemplary. They may lose her entirely.

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