Inside Cooper During COVID

POSTED ON: September 17, 2020

Students social distancing Students studying in the Residence Hall. Students in masks.

Student life looks very different this year. The pandemic has meant rethinking almost every facet of how students work and connect. And yet there is still the familiar anticipation and flurry of activity that marks a brand-new year of thinking, creating, and collaborating.

Thanks to Cooper’s essential workers, technicians, and operations staff, summer preparations for a “hybrid” back to school experience have helped ensure that, while most courses are being taught remotely, at least some work can continue safely in person.

"So many people have been working tirelessly to lay the foundation for virtual learning and to prepare our buildings for what lies ahead,” said President Laura Sparks in a video message to the community at the start of the semester. "Our Health and Safety Committee has meticulously developed the protocols necessary to allow for some in-person, on-campus time in ways that are physically distanced, low- or no-contact, and in compliance with City and State guidelines.”

As part of those preparations, a deep cleaning of all building interiors took place over the summer and included complete sanitization of the air ducts. Technical improvements to air circulation were made as well, with the buildings’ HVAC systems upgraded to high efficiency air filters, which are approved by ASHRAE as being effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and are changed out monthly.

Following the recommendations of health experts, Cooper rolled out a Returning to Cooper Guide, detailing the protocols for limited access to campus and for student use of labs, studios, and shops. The institution also designated an internal contact tracer in support of the State’s COVID-19 tracing efforts and has prepared contingency plans for shutting down again in the event of another outbreak.

CUSAFE, a smartphone app developed by Cooper’s Safety and Security Department and the Office of Information Technology, was released as part of the back to school protocols to help tightly monitor building access and share safety alerts, resources, and news. Anyone entering the buildings must now have prior approval, submit negative COVID-19 test results on a monthly basis, and complete daily health screens by filling out a questionnaire, available via the app.

Students are also working in assigned individual studio or lab spaces and come in on staggered schedules to reduce density. Workspaces are cleaned daily, with 125 sanitizing wipe stations installed throughout the buildings for wiping down surfaces and equipment before and after each use. Since the start of the semester, the Foundation Building and 41 Cooper Square have begun operating at 50% their normal building capacities, allowing for social distancing and safely distanced flows of foot traffic guided by signs and directional lines taped onto the floors. Masks must be worn at all times while on campus, and Cooper purchased 3,000 protective masks and 1,000 thermometers over the summer to distribute to those who are working on site.

"The thing about Cooper is that the classes have always been small and therefore it makes it a lot easier to adjust to the social distancing guidelines," said Alex Cho CE’22, who has been going into 41 Cooper twice a week for civil engineering courses. "The labs feel pretty normal, other than wearing masks, and often I forget we are in the middle of a pandemic until I leave the building after class. It is a little weird seeing the lobby so empty sometimes during the day."

New protocols are being enforced in the Residence Hall as well. A total of 64 first-year and transfer students and 7 RAs, along with professional staff, moved into the dorm this semester. Residents were required to quarantine for 14 days upon move-in (however those from New York’s non-mandated quarantine state list who tested negative were able to end their quarantine early). Students live in single-occupancy bedrooms but still share apartments. Outside visitors are prohibited, and students are expected to maintain social distance and wear masks around anyone not living in the same apartment as themselves.

"Living in the dorms felt eerie at first," wrote Brighton Huynh CE’21, an RA and editor-in-chief of The Pioneer, in an email. "Where once you would see people milling about in common spaces or coincidentally in the hallways, emptiness greeted you save for the sounds of residents in their apartments."

Members of the Student Affairs staff have been working to alleviate the feeling of isolation. "We have been planning virtual interactions and hosting some outdoor time on the Benjamin Menschel Common Room terrace,” explained Grace Kendall, Associate Dean of Students. “The RAs and RD have also done some door-to-door programming, handing out treats and checking in. We see many of the students when we deliver packages and food to their apartment doors while they are still in quarantine — the staff has been essential in getting deliveries to them to help get through the quarantine period.”

The ways in which clubs and student groups interact has, of course, also changed. To facilitate, the Office of Student Affairs launched a new student activities portal, called Engage, which gives clubs and extracurricular groups an all-encompassing online space for coming together and organizing virtual and socially distanced events. The annual Fall Festival for student clubs is being held in a virtual format this year via the new portal.

New spaces to support hybrid learning have appeared on campus as well. Designated ground-floor rooms have been transformed into student internet cafes, offering safe access to computer stations divided by plexiglass. The internet cafes operate on a reservation system and are cleaned between uses.

As students settle into adapted modes of learning and working, much of the Cooper experience will carry on within the constraints of the pandemic: art will be made, experiments designed, works critiqued, exams studied for, papers written. And though the months ahead remain uncharted territory, the hope is that with all of these precautions the semester can keep evolving in a safe and productive direction.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.