No ticket required: Bryce Jordan Center's arena pivots to host classes

September 04, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The return of students to the University Park campus during the coronavirus pandemic created several challenges for Penn State, including where to safely conduct larger classes.

With physical distancing the order of the day, University leaders sought to find additional space on campus to host some courses with larger enrollments.

As officials discussed alternatives to existing classrooms, one idea emerged: Using the Bryce Jordan Center as a classroom. 

“There are very few places on campus that can actually accommodate 100, 150, 200 socially-distanced students,” said Al Karosas, general manager of the Bryce Jordan Center. Karosas suggested to University leadership that the arena could host some classes.

“I said, ‘We have the ability and the amenities that I think the classes might need. We may be able to help out here,’” Karosas recalled.

With national music tours on hold, state rules limiting public events and a pause on athletic events, the Bryce Jordan Center was in a unique position to assist with the resumption of in-person classes at University Park.

Converting the 16,000-seat Jordan Center into a giant classroom was a fairly seamless transition, as staff members had been hard at work all summer planning on how to safely host events once conditions allowed.

“We developed a plan — 72 pages of policies and procedures on how to safely have people in house,” said Kate Bean, the Jordan Center’s marketing and communications director. “We retrofitted the entire building. I don’t know if there’s a single surface or space that has not had a change to it to accommodate for COVID.”

In addition to installing hand sanitizer stations, increased cleanings and other safety measures, the Jordan Center enlisted the help of the campus Multimedia and Print Center to develop ‘seatbelts’ — printed vinyl strips wrapped around each seat — to assist with physical distancing in the arena classroom.

“It’s an easy way to show people where to spatially distance. We wanted to make it easy, so when students come in, they could see where they could sit and where they could not,” Karosas said. 

Karosas credits the Miami Dolphins for the concept and has been sharing images of the Jordan Center’s seats as colleagues across the country work to prepare their venues for the eventual return of live events.

The center’s team also developed “COVID Courtesy” clings for windows and mirrors, including music-based ones on restroom mirrors with modified lyrics from pop songs such as “Africa” by Toto and “Raspberry Beret” by Prince to help people wash their hands for the proper length of time.

When it came to shifting the arena from hosting rock concerts to college classes, Karosas said the staff’s experience in quickly converting the facility from hosting a basketball game to a rock concert to another event made it easy.

“The expertise of our team made this a simple transition,” he said. “When you have professionals who work with Bruce Springsteen, Billie Eilish and all these other tours and know the complexities of their productions, their audio and video, it wasn’t a problem to use that knowledge and experience toward creating a classroom.”

Karosas said hosting fall classes in the arena aided the Jordan Center in recalling its remaining full-time workforce that had been furloughed when the venue stopped hosting live events.

Bean said the production team worked closely with faculty members to make sure the lecture and presentation experience was optimized for both the instructor and the students.

“They’re using our sound system to teach their classes while putting their presentations on the Jumbotron,” Bean said. “Our sound system is one of the best in the nation. We can target sound to students where they are, so it’s not echoey.”

Technicians also lowered the giant scoreboard to a level where students could easily see a faculty member’s presentation. “We kept lowering it until it was at the optimal level,” Karosas said.

The production team assigned each faculty member their own lavalier microphone, which are sanitized after each use. “Literally, that faculty member will be the only person to use that mic,” he said.

Much like a conventional classroom, faculty members could arrive at the Jordan Center, plug their equipment and start their class without a hitch.

This semester, the Jordan Center is hosting eight courses, including classes in chemical engineering, education psychology, nursing, psychology, nutrition and Navy ROTC.

Students and faculty traveling to the Jordan Center for classes also have the opportunity to pick up a drink, snack or meal before or after class.

Bean said the Penn State Bakery has set up shop with breakfast favorites including coffee, iced mochas, bagels, muffins and doughnuts, and the Roaring Grill is opened for lunch with the usual favorites and a rotating menu.

She said each day’s menu is promoted on social media, and the rotating menus are often themed, such as THON throwback or Asian wok.

Karosas added that the Jordan Center is offering chicken tender baskets for students who miss getting them at events. “Students seem to have a need for their chicken tender basket.”

Last Updated September 08, 2020