As coronavirus cases are rising in parts of the country, what are Penn State’s intentions as it continues planning for back to campus?
The University is concerned by the current trends and continuously monitoring state and national disease data and following guidance from state and local health officials. Based on that guidance, and in consultation with faculty experts in epidemiology, medicine and public health, the University is prepared to adjust its approach as necessary, including the possibility that Penn State would need to shift the semester to a fully remote learning environment once again. The University and Governor Wolf have previously stressed the importance of following guidelines to protect community health and minimize the spread of the virus, and cautioned that lax behaviors could undo progress toward reopening campuses.
When we come back to campus, what do we need to do to be prepared?
The health and well-being of the Penn State community is the University’s first priority as we look forward to welcoming the community back to our campuses. As announced June 14, Penn State will begin to have students and employees return to campuses in phases, including small cohorts of students over the summer, with significant prevention and public health procedures in place to help maintain the health and safety of our students, employees and local communities.
Specific to public health, as part of a “new normal” for returning to campus, all students, faculty and staff members will be expected to take personal actions to help protect themselves and others on campus — the success of the University’s plans will be largely dependent on everyone doing their part. While on campus, students, employees and visitors are expected to wear face masks or coverings, practice social distancing, practice hand hygiene by frequently washing and sanitizing, follow protocols for covering coughs and sneezes, stay home if sick, and clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces. The University will employ enhanced cleaning and sanitation, hygiene stations, plexiglass, signage and various other measures to provide for physical distancing and other health and safety needs.
Additional guidance for members of the University will continue to be provided at https://virusinfo.psu.edu/, which will be updated regularly with the latest information and guidance as we all work together toward a safe return.
Since March, more than 250 individuals serving on 16 task groups and subcommittees have been preparing for a coordinated return to on-campus working, learning and living for students and employees across each of the University’s campuses. Penn State has taken a robust public-health- and science-based approach to inform how it will manage social distancing, limit the size of events, and provide learning environments that are as safe as reasonably possible. Penn State will meet or exceed the expectations for colleges and universities that have been outlined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for returning students and employees to campus.
University leadership and the task groups will work with governance and advisory bodies, including the University Faculty Senate and the University Staff Advisory Council, to work through the details of course delivery, classroom and workplace safety, and other aspects of the return to campus.
What will our return look like for course instruction? Will instruction be in person, remote or a hybrid model?
There will be changes to the academic schedule focused on enhancing safety, minimizing travel and lowering the risk of spread of the virus. To meet these goals, the fall semester will begin on the originally scheduled date of Monday, Aug. 24, and campus-based residential instruction will end Friday, Nov. 20, with the remainder of the semester—including finals—being delivered remotely and/or online when classes resume after Thanksgiving break on Nov. 30. Some units, such as Dickinson Law and Penn State Law, have different start dates and will also begin as originally scheduled. To minimize travel and lower the risk of spreading coronavirus on campuses, classes will be held on Labor Day (Sept. 7). The semester will end following finals on Dec. 18, as originally planned.
Delivery of the curriculum will occur through a highly flexible mix of in-person, remote and online instruction throughout the semester, with all courses with enrollment over 250 at University Park and over 100 at a Commonwealth Campus delivered remotely, in line with the governor’s requirements for higher education. Most classes will be scheduled through synchronous delivery (faculty member is present at same time as students). This is based on strong evidence of greater academic success by establishing robust learning communities and environments. Campuses and academic units will determine how to deliver smaller classes, following University guidance.
Faculty are expected to be flexible in their interpretation and management of in-person class attendance so that sick students can stay home, and the University will work with immunocompromised and other at-risk students to develop appropriate accommodations. For students who are unable to return to any campus this fall, there are flexible options so that they can continue to make progress toward their degrees.
Penn State is focused on supporting students and helping them to meet their desired educational outcomes no matter the method of delivery, and advisers will be available to assist students on crafting their individual class schedules and curricula options.
Do we need to wear masks and maintain social distancing when we return to campus?
In accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health guidelines, wearing face masks and adhering to social distancing practices, including maintaining six feet of physical distance between another person, are critical components in helping to maintain the health and safety of the entire campus community. Students, employees and visitors are required to practice social distancing and wear face masks/coverings when inside campus buildings, including in classrooms, labs, offices, and other public spaces, and the University is expecting that individuals also will wear a mask when outdoors on campus and in the community.
To aid in this effort, the University purchased 500,000 masks to be distributed across all campuses for people who need them. In addition, distance markers, directional arrows, signs and other visual cues will be installed in high-traffic areas, classrooms, common areas, study spaces and other shared locations, which also will be reconfigured with social-distancing principles in mind. Tables, chairs and lounge furniture will be rearranged and/or blocked for use in some locations, and posting of maximum occupancy and do-not-congregate signs for most areas will become the norm, in accordance with the governor’s higher education guidance.
How does Penn State plan to manage the risk of inviting students back to campuses who could potentially reintroduce COVID-19?
Maintaining the health and safety of the campus and local communities is the top priority driving Penn State’s decision-making and policy changes as it relates to the pandemic. The University is asking students, prior to returning to campus, if they have exhibited COVID-like symptoms or have reason to believe they were exposed to COVID-19, to self-quarantine and seek testing in consultation with their health care provider. Further, as a precaution, the University encourages all students who can to self-quarantine prior to arrival.
Penn State also will encourage flu vaccination for all students before the onset of flu season, or certainly before the start of the spring semester, with an eye toward addressing the complicated season that is likely to include flu along with COVID-19, and to reducing as much as possible, a demand for health facilities in order to maintain capacity for the severely ill. At University Park, Penn State’s largest campus, officials are working closely with Mount Nittany Medical Center as part of collaboration with local public health entities, in accordance with state guidance. In addition, partnerships in the communities in which Commonwealth Campuses are situated also are taking place.
All actions being implemented are based on guidance from Penn State health experts and scientists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, among others. The University will meet or exceed the expectations for colleges and universities outlined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education for returning students and employees to campus.
How are students going to live together in rooms? Will Penn State consider offering more single-occupancy rooms to students?
To help limit prolonged person-to-person contact, this fall, no residence hall room or space may be occupied by more than two residents. To the extent possible, single rooms will be provided to immunocompromised or at-risk students, or a student requesting one, although immunocompromised or at-risk students will receive priority consideration. Roommate requests also will be honored.
At least initially, guests will be prohibited in the residence halls, while the University monitors the return to campus.
Residence hall bathrooms will be cleaned at least two times each day; masks are expected to be worn in bathrooms, except when showering or brushing teeth. General facility cleaning regimens will be based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, the American College Health Association, the Department of Health and others.
Residence Life will significantly modify its programming and interactions with students to minimize risks associated with transmission of the virus, and social or physical distancing requirements in the residence halls will be strictly enforced.
Seating will be substantially reduced in common areas and lounges to accommodate physical distancing; all lounge space will be closed initially – all in accordance with the governor’s guidance. Over time, relaxation of that status will depend on the effectiveness of mitigation efforts. Elevator usage may be discontinued initially, except for special circumstances; at a minimum, occupancy in elevators will be more restricted than usual. One-way traffic for each stairwell, up or down, will be communicated and expected.
What will a phased return look like for employees?
As always, the safety of faculty, staff, students and the community is our top priority. A return to work for employees is being approached deliberately and is being organized into phases. Some employees have continued to work on campuses to perform mission-critical work and others have begun returning in stages, including researchers who are unable to perform their work from home. Moving forward, other employees whose work must be completed on site will continue to return to campuses, including those preparing facilities for the return of students. Employees who are currently telecommuting but whose work can be more effectively performed on campus will be the next group to return to on-site work.
As the semester unfolds and the University continues to monitor the situation, employees who can effectively work remotely will be the last group to return to their workspaces, if needed. More information will be shared with individual units and employees regarding when they should expect to return to campus. In these cases, managers will be asked to develop plans that will facilitate the safe return of staff members, which will include social distancing, wearing appropriate face coverings, limiting the numbers of people in offices at any time and plans for additional cleaning.
Additional and up-to-date information related to return to work is available at https://sites.psu.edu/returntowork/.