Penn State leaders discuss University's path forward at virtual Town Hall

May 19, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State leaders today (May 19) hosted their third University-wide virtual Town Hall in two months to provide updates on preparations for return to campus and work, as well as to answer questions from faculty and staff on the University’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The hourlong, live event was hosted by Penn State President Eric Barron and Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones. Joining them were key administrative leaders and faculty involved in planning the University’s return to work and learning strategies, including:

  • Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs and co-chair of the Return to Campus and Community task force;
  • Lorraine Goffe, vice president of human resources and co-chair of the Return to Work task force; and
  • Matthew Ferrari, associate professor of biology, researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and co-chair of the Public Health and Science Assessment task force.

As he kicked off the event, Barron acknowledged the concerns of the University community during this time of uncertainty. “We know there is a lot you may be worried about. You may be worried about personal health issues or family health issues. You may have financial concerns. Or you may be wondering about coming back to work if there happens to be the presence of the coronavirus,” he said. “As we work through this crisis and think about our planning, it is the safety and well-being of all of Penn Staters — our students, our faculty and staff — that is our overriding concern.”

On May 18, the University provided an update in its planning for a coordinated phased return to on-campus working, learning and living for students and employees across each of Penn State’s campuses. 

“I know we all want to be back on campus when we can do so safely,” Jones said. “So our task groups are continuing to rise to the challenge of confronting the many, many issues that need to be addressed before we can do so. They are surveying faculty and staff on their opinions, and are considering employee needs in the decisions that will be made.”

Jones mentioned the efforts of the research task group, led by Senior Vice President for Research Lora Weiss, in examining the timing and requirements for resuming on-campus research activities.

“We are in the midst of rolling out a comprehensive return-to-research plan that will allow us to slowly restart, in a safe and effective manner, on-campus labs and research projects that cannot be done remotely,” he said.

In discussing the effort to safely bringing students back to campus, Sims said the Return to Campus and Community task force has focused on ways to minimize risk posed by the coronavirus at Penn State’s campuses and local communities, and is exploring a number of possibilities, including potential changes to the academic calendar, class schedules, classroom setups, blended learning that combines in-person and remote activities, and safety protocols in class to minimize risks to both students and faculty.

“Everything we’re doing is informed by public health and science,” he said. “We have the very best experts who are giving us advice on everything we’re considering. We have been focused on the classroom experience and outside-of-the-classroom experience in trying to make sure we can have those experiences in the safest manner possible.” 

For the transition back to the workplace, Goffe said her task group’s plan emphasizes safety and flexibility in its support of faculty and staff.

The University will take a phased approach in bringing employees back to the workplace, she said. “We see it as being a fairly slow and methodical process to give time to assess what’s happening, so we can make adjustments and pivot when needed.”

She added, “This is an evolving situation. We learn new things each and every day, sometimes by the hour we learn something new. We are making the best decisions that we can, knowing that we might have to adjust.” 

Ferrari said that regardless of when and how return to campus and return to work happen, prevention and safety remain paramount.

“We’ve been focused on three key areas: prevention, detecting outbreaks as they occur and mitigation in that event,” he said of the planning effort. “That staged process itself is one of the most effective things that we can do as an institution to protect the community. What we’re trying to do is to avoid an outbreak, to detect it quickly if it happens, and to mitigate it quickly. That phased approach allows us to put systems in place, to test them, and to not go too fast. All of these pieces are working really closely together. This whole plan is trying to keep the community safe.” 

Barron added that the University has purchased 500,000 masks for distribution to the Penn State community and will deploy 2,500 hand sanitizer stations across all of its locations as part of coronavirus prevention efforts.

When asked about a timeline for bringing furloughed employees back, Barron said that multiple factors— including federal and state guidelines — influence when the University can bring employees back. For example, as research operations resume, personnel are needed to reopen building. With the easing of stay-at-home restrictions, landscaping crews can begin working again.

Barron said Penn State will continue taking a measured approach in its response to the pandemic. “We’re not making abrupt announcements. We’re taking this one step at a time, and we’re it doing it as a community. We’re also working really hard to be mindful of our role that this University plays in the communities. We live here. We work here. So, we also contemplate what kind of impact we have on our community, our friends and our neighbors.”

The virtual Town Hall will soon be archived and available to watch online at LiveEvents.psu.edu.

Viewers of the event are encouraged to fill out a survey at https://pennstate.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_a3PJScIkAvSHoqh.

Since 2015, Town Hall meetings have provided opportunities for members of the Penn State community to receive updates on University initiatives, hear from administrative leaders about key issues, ask questions and provide feedback. University leaders hosted a pair of virtual town halls on March 24, one for faculty and staff and another for students, to answer questions about Penn State’s coronavirus response. Virtual town halls have also been hosted by the Graduate School and Global Programs.

Updated information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus can be found at https://virusinfo.psu.edu.

Last Updated May 22, 2020