University leaders talk COVID response during students and families Town Hall

October 04, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — University leaders took time to answer questions from students and parents about Penn State’s response to the coronavirus, and its plans for the remainder of the fall during an online Town Hall event on Oct. 4 as a part of virtual Parents and Families Weekend. 

Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost, hosted the event, along with:

  • Dr. Kevin Black, interim dean of the College of Medicine; 
  • Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs; and
  • Kelly Wolgast, director of the Penn State COVID-19 Operations Control Center.

The panel addressed an array of questions during the hour-long, livestream event, ranging from coronavirus-specific issues such as testing, isolation and quarantine, and misconceptions around the virus, to aspects of campus life, including the football season, recreational activities and opportunities for students, Election Day voting, fall commencement and spring semester.

“This semester obviously looks very different compared to years’ past,” Jones said as he opened the Town Hall. “We know this hasn’t always been easy, and for our freshmen students, not the way you hoped to begin your time here at Penn State.”

The provost thanked parents and families for their support of students, and praised undergraduates and graduates for their resilience during the ongoing pandemic.

Jones stressed the need for students to continue to be vigilant, and reminded them of their responsibilities. “Students are expected and required to comply with the random surveillance testing program. This is so we can do as good a job as possible on predicting and looking ahead at the potential prevalence of COVID-19 on our campuses.”

He continued, “Some students are not fulfilling their [random surveillance] testing responsibilities — either by delaying their testing or opting for commercial tests that are not reported to the University. This not only doesn’t allow for your proper treatment, but also it puts your friends and family at great risk because we cannot effectively contact trace, mitigate and monitor cases.”

Wolgast emphasized that the random surveillance testing isn’t meant as an individual diagnostic instrument, but a crucial tool for Penn State to understand the overall health of the campus population. She said random surveillance testing allows the University to anticipate and put into place mitigation strategies, such as increasing pop-up and walk-up testing, should they be needed. 

Black said if students do feel ill and are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, they can be tested quickly. At University Park, students can log into the My UHS system to make an appointment, and students at Commonwealth Campuses can call their campus nurse or health services at any time.

He expressed deep concern over reports of students who hope to contract COVID-19 so “they can get it out of their system” before heading home in November. 

“That is a really dangerous approach to take,” Black said. “Many people that become infected with COVID we know do not appear to develop symptoms, and in most young, healthy individuals, the symptoms are fortunately mild to moderate in nature. Some, however, can become very ill, regardless of their age or their health status. There are many things about this virus we don’t yet know.” 

He said researchers and medical experts remained concerned about the long-term health implications of contracting COVID-19, even for those who exhibit few to no symptoms now. “We also don’t know to what degree how being infected now confers immunity in the future. I can’t emphasize enough how easily this virus can be transmitted from one infected individual to others. When it’s spread to those who are older or less healthy, the results can be devastating.”

Sims discussed contact tracing as part of the University’s efforts to mitigate the coronavirus. “Contact tracing is a term a lot of us have become much more familiar with through this experience. It’s not entirely new to Penn State, though. We have been doing contact tracing in years’ past with things like measles outbreaks on campus, but never at a scale like this. We realized early on that we were going to have to create a system for contact tracing and hired additional staff and remobilize folks into the contact tracing function.”

Sims said Student Affairs currently has the equivalent of 22 full-time staff focused on contact tracing, and is expanding to the equivalent of 32 full-time employees working to contact trace for all of the campuses across the commonwealth.

For students who receive a call by a contact tracer, whether it is by Penn State or the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Wolgast said, “It’s important for students to answer their phone. Please, please, please answer your phone as the Pennsylvania Department of Health or Penn State will be calling you. We definitely want to talk to you and appreciate you answering the phone when we reach out to you.” 

As the conversation turned to quarantine and isolation, Wolgast explained the differences between the two. 

“When we use the term ‘isolation,’ this refers to someone who is actually infected with the virus,” she said. Typically, infected students will spend approximately 10 days in isolation, depending upon the symptoms. “Quarantine, on the other hand, is a time period that is little longer — it’s 14 days, and that is for student who may have been in close contact with someone who had COVID, but we’re not quite sure if they have contracted COVID. So, we have a quarantine  period to allow the symptoms to develop. The time period for that generally is between day two and day 14, but can happen anytime during that time period.”     

Wolgast said Penn State is confident that it has sufficient capacity to serve students across the University who need it, and that quarantine and isolation space at University Park campus is holding steady at 50% capacity.

Sims said the University has been surveying students about their experiences in quarantine and isolation, and has been making changes and improvements based upon their feedback. 

He said students’ mental health and emotional well-being during the pandemic continue a major focus for the University, and services such as Counseling and Psychological Services and You@PSU are available 24-7 for all students, including individuals in quarantine and isolation. He added that student support services have been reaching out to quarantine and isolation students, and that case managers have been assigned to work with students.

“We have some student groups who have decided to write letters, send little notes to their peers who are stuck in quarantine and isolation, just to keep them going and inspire them, remind them that people are thinking of them and wishing them well,” he said.

While the vast majority of students have followed Penn State’s regulations around wearing masks, social distancing and other mitigation measures, Sims acknowledged that the University has issued more than 1,200 sanctions for COVID-related violations. Although many of the sanctions have come in the form of warnings, Sims said some violations have been more serious and have resulted in 200 students placed on probation, along with 10 suspensions and another 17 students who have lost their on-campus housing.

“They are being removed from the University because their actions have been among the more egregious,” he said of the students who have been suspended. “That might be defined as hosting a large gathering, often at an off-campus facility, an apartment, a rental home. We’ve had parties with 40 or 50 or 60 students. Those are some of the worst things you can do. Those things can’t be allowed and we have to take very strong action when we see those things have happened.” 

As Penn State approaches the halfway point before the Thanksgiving break, Jones said the University remains on track to continue the current mode of instruction. The provost said the University will be offering additional safety and travel guidance for students ahead of the Nov. 20 departure date.

The panelists also addressed a number of other topics:

  • Engaging students: Sims said the University has been hard at work to provide activities for students outside of regular coursework, and has been working with student organizations to offer safe, engaging events. Penn State has hosted outdoor movies and sunset yoga classes where students wore masks and remained socially distant. The University exercised one of the on-ramps of its coronavirus plans with the recently reopened recreation facilities at University Park campus. Sims added that there are plans for some limited, in-person experiences for the annual Homecoming celebration.
  • Football and fall sports: Jones said the Big Ten Conference is not allowing spectators at games, and that tailgating will not be allowed anywhere on campus. Sims said the University is exploring options for outdoor gatherings specifically for University Park students to watch football games, and hopes to have an announcement soon.
  • Flu shots: Students and their families are strongly encouraged to get a flu shot this year. Flu vaccine clinics for students are being offered at University Park campus through Nov. 10.
  • Election Day voting: The Bryce Jordan Center at University Park campus will serve as an early polling place and be open for Election Day voting.
  • Fall commencement: This semester’s commencement ceremony will take place virtually on Dec. 19.
  • Spring semester: Jones said Penn State will be making an announcement on Oct. 5 with details about the spring 2021 semester.
  • Spring 2021 commencement: Jones said the University is continuing to monitor the situation with the pandemic and will make an announcement as May approaches.

The Oct. 4 virtual Town Hall will be archived and available for viewing soon at https://LiveEvents.psu.edu/. Individuals who watched the event are encouraged to fill out this anonymous survey

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, University leaders have hosted numerous virtual Town Hall events, including, including a pair of town halls for students and faculty and staff on March 24, a follow-up event on May 19, another pair for students and faculty and staff on June 22, one for the University community on July 31 and one for faculty and staff on Sept. 23.  

For the latest information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus, go to https://virusinfo.psu.edu/.  

Last Updated October 08, 2020