Penn State leaders answer student questions in preparation for return to campus

June 22, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State leaders hosted a virtual town hall today (June 22) to answer questions from graduate and undergraduate students and families about the ‘Back to State’ plans announced last week, providing additional information on how to prepare and what to expect when classes resume in-person this fall. 

 The hourlong, student-focused town hall followed a similar live virtual event dedicated to answering questions from faculty and staff. Both events were hosted by Penn State President Eric Barron – and to adhere to public health guidelines around social distancing and masking practices -- were joined virtually by: 

  • Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost; 

  • Lorraine Goffe, vice president for human resources and co-chair of the Return to Work task force; 

  • Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs and co-chair of the Return to Campus and Community task force; and 

  • Matt 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. 

Barron opened the event with enthusiasm to welcome the Penn State community back on campus this fall; thanking the campus community for its strength and resilience; and reiterating that their health and well-being continues to be the University’s first priority. 

“We have heard from thousands of students, faculty, staff, our community members and our peer institutions, and have critically evaluated all of the feedback,” Barron said. “Our decisions were not taken lightly. We are doing everything we can to deliver a high-quality education within a difficult environment, and we are committed.” 

He continued on to announce several mitigation strategies underway on each of Penn State’s campuses — that with the commitment of each and every member of the community -- may impact how the pandemic unfolds across the commonwealth. 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. Additionally, mask requirements were announced. 

“Students, employees and visitors are required to wear face masks in classrooms -- and we will hold individuals accountable,” Barron said. “Our expectations, of course, are also that individuals will wear masks on campus, and in the community, as well as follow other guidelines for distancing and hand washing, for example. If masks are not an option for some individuals, we are looking into alternatives.” 

Sims followed Barron with remarks around how students can ready themselves for their experience this fall, reinforcing that Penn State is doing its part to prepare health centers and frontline healthcare workers across the commonwealth to accommodate testing and other potential needs throughout the year-- and to the extent possible -- making accommodations for the immunocompromised and other high-risk individuals. Health Services is building its capacity to receive, treat, test and isolate students who may have contracted COVID-19. Additionally, the Nittany Lion Inn at the University Park campus will remain closed at this time, so that it may be utilized as an isolation space as needed during the fall semester. 

Providing for the physical and psychological health and well-being of students, faculty, and staff is a priority, and significant support resources will be provided should a student contract COVID-19 while on campus. This includes everything from support for continued academic progress, support for mental health and support for basic personal needs.  

Ferrari later expanded on the many strategies that informed the decision to return to on-campus learning this fall – including epidemiology modeling – which enabled them to project the potential impact on our health systems, on our campuses and our communities surrounding our campuses. These projections guided the University’s preparations, staffing and resource allocations in the most evidence-based way. 

Sims noted the University was focused on necessary changes to housing and dining that will continue to prioritize comfort, convenience and safety. He explained that no residence hall room may be occupied by more than two residents and single-room requests will be prioritized for immunocompromised students. Cleaning regimens will be guided by recommendations from leading public health organizations, including twice daily for bathrooms.  

Additionally, changes to expect at campus dining facilities include: 

  • Limiting capacity, removing seating and tables to encourage physical distancing 

  • Expanding mobile ordering and carryout options to reduce wait times 

  • Eliminating self-serve options 

Sims stressed the importance of experience outside of the classroom -- including recreational facilities and activities, involvement and leadership in student organizations, student centers and libraries, cultural and entertainment events, civic engagement, community service -- is among the many reasons students choose Penn State. 

“What we’re inviting you to return to is not simply in-person classes but also in-person experiences beyond the classroom,” Sims said. “How we encourage all those critical aspects of the student experience may vary from campus to campus and certainly will require substantial change to past practices, but we want you to know that we know how important all those things are to your experience.” 

Barron added that the recent return of football players to campus is a health and safety step if play were to take place. Currently, options under consideration by universities all include significantly reduced people in the stands along with other measures.  

Jones addressed the unique challenges that international students are facing with flight restrictions and inability to process visas before the start of the fall semester. He shared several efforts underway to support these students and minimize the likelihood of impact on academic progress, including access to full programming in a remote or online experience. Additionally, a suite of options and alternatives will be announced in the coming weeks that will provide flexibility in curriculum delivery to support the success and progress of each student. 

“Our international students chose Penn State for a reason — they see us as a high-quality academic environment of which they would like to be a part. We in turn want them to be a part of this dynamic educational environment that we cherish,” Jones said. “Our commitment has not changed one bit, and we hope their commitment to having a Penn State educational experience won’t change either.” 

Jones acknowledged another subset of students with a special and unique experience: graduate students. He stressed the University’s commitment to delivering a robust and meaningful experience and that flexibility is critical to meet each individual course of study. More details are forthcoming from The Graduate School.  

“To reflect the unforeseen financial circumstances that families saw from the pandemic; we reduced summer session tuition; once again asked for the Board of Trustees not to raise tuition for our student populations; and worked hard with many academic leaders of the University in providing funding for student emergency fund,” Barron said. “Another program, Complete Penn State, is for those who may be close to receiving their degree and is in place so that financial issues do not stop them from getting to the finish line. And we are busy enhancing our ability to attract scholarship resources to assist students.” 

“Access and affordability are extremely important to the University -- and to you -- and we are working on this from multiple fronts,” Barron added. 

Penn State leaders recognized that many students are experiencing financial strain and pointed to resources available for students in need of emergency assistance, including adjusting the pre-existing student emergency fund to meet the growing needs. Students are encouraged to review support resources available through the Student Care and Advocacy office within Student Affairs, which includes a link to the Student Emergency Fund application. 

As Barron concluded the session, he addressed all students – new and current – with final thoughts on the importance of inclusion as they think about returning: “Our country is going through a period of social unrest and upheaval. We are committed to making changes at Penn State that create a more just and welcoming environment for all. I expect that together we will make significant progress in fighting ignorance and intolerance. We will embrace the power that diversity represents in fulfilling our mission to open doors of opportunity for all.”  

With limited time to answer every question during the event, students and families can review the FAQs at psu.edu/virusinfo/faqs, which have been and will continue to be updated following the town hall. Dozens of questions with implications for specific groups of individuals, such as graduate students, international students and first-year/new students were received and will be addressed in follow-up communications in the coming days. To view both the student and employee town halls in their entirety, the sessions 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_5pumSPTSyKQuJpj

Since the start of the pandemic, Penn State leaders have hosted a number of town hall events, including a pair of virtual town halls for students and faculty and staff on March 24, and a follow-up event on May 19. Virtual town halls were also hosted by the Graduate School and Office of Global Programs

Penn State leaders have hosted Town Hall meetings since 2015 to provide members of the University community opportunities to receive updates on Penn State initiatives, hear from administrative leaders about key issues, ask questions and provide feedback. 

Updated information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus can be found at https://virusinfo.psu.edu/, including frequently asked questions about employee impactsclasses and academics for faculty and instructorscampuses and facilitiesresources and support, and other topics. 

 

Last Updated June 29, 2020