Penn State announces guidance on employees transitioning back to campus

April 27, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – As Penn State continues to prepare for the resumption of full on-campus activities and a return to in-person modes of instruction for fall 2021, separate guidance for both faculty and staff has been crafted to keep employees informed and to help the transition back to campus remain on track. 

The guidance, which places the health and safety of Penn State students, faculty and staff at the forefront, is expected to help University employees safely transition back to campus, following on the heels of recent announcements of on-campus classes and activities. The increased availability of vaccines and the expedited roll out announced by the state are playing a significant role in an optimistic outlook for summer and a full, on-campus experience for students at all campuses in fall 2021. 

For staff, information on the transition strategy can be found in the “Staff Transition Strategy Guidance” document. Faculty guidance can be found on the website of the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs.  

Employee transition plans

Both sets of guidance factor in federal and state guidelines and balance the educational and functional needs of the University with personal and health-related employee concerns. The health and safety of all members of the University community continue to be of utmost concern, and the plans for in-person classes and on-campus work have the flexibility built in to quickly respond to changing pandemic conditions, if necessary. 

“This transition guidance is evolving and will take into account circumstances surrounding the pandemic at various times as we move toward the fall 2021 semester,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “For our students, their interactions with faculty, researchers and staff are a core part of the Penn State experience. While some employee roles may be suited to remote work and considerations for these are being evaluated both in the interim and beyond, the ultimate goal is for Penn State faculty and staff to safely return to provide that on-campus experience our students seek.”

Return to Work Task Group

Co-chaired by Abby Diehl, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs, and Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources, the Return to Work Task Group is made up of 20 faculty, staff and administrators from colleges, campuses and units across the University. The group continues to weigh various factors in contemplating employees’ return to the workplace, including, but not limited to, any physical distancing requirements that may be necessary, the likely need for continued adherence to masking, office space reconfigurations, maximum density of a space, the ongoing cleaning of work and common areas, expectations for hygiene, and isolation protocols along with any self-quarantine guidance. 

“The safety of our University community is our highest priority, and while a number of essential personnel have been working on site, a gradual return to on-site work for employees is going to be the best way to accomplish our goals,” Goffe said. “The return to our workplaces is a very complex undertaking with a lot of interconnected parts. As seen in prior plans, there is flexibility built into the return-to-work plan due to the unknowns of the pandemic, the ability across the nation to avoid outbreaks, and the continued roll out of vaccines.”  

Faculty guidance

Beginning in fall 2021 and consistent with pre-pandemic curriculum needs, schedules and practices, the University expects Penn State faculty, many of whom have already been teaching on site, to provide in-person rather than remote instruction starting Aug. 23. 

“Our faculty have done a tremendous job of constantly adapting during the pandemic,” said Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones. “I am continuously impressed by our faculty and their steadfastness in maintaining the quality of a Penn State education whether via remote instruction or in-person and physically distanced. While we understand that, for some individuals, returning to full in-person instruction may raise questions, we want to emphasize that leadership has considered all aspects of a return to in-person instruction and Penn State continues to follow both state and federal guidelines with the health and well-being of our community continuing to be paramount.”

Staff guidance

For now, remote work for staff continues where possible, however, the guidance outlines a path for units to return additional staff to on-site work during the summer and a full return of staff to on-site work by Aug. 16.

The Staff Transition Strategy Guidance that has been defined by the group includes both summer and fall semesters. Units are asked to consider the maximum occupancy of office spaces that takes current physical distancing guidelines into account. Employee on-site work may need to be staggered in order to comply with these guidelines and units should work with their pandemic safety officer and facility coordinator to see that custodial services are adequate. Units should also consider nonemployees such as students and visitors who may occasionally or regularly be expected in office areas and the impact that these visits have on density. 

Since the start of the fall 2020 semester, a number of employees have returned, in some capacity, on site via the "Return to Work" database. As health and safety guidelines permit, units may increase the frequency with which employees already in the database perform on-site work.

Employees who have been remote due to COVID-19 may be added by their supervisors to the database, per protocols, to transition back in a phased manner leading up to Aug. 16. Employees who are working entirely remotely and who do not perform work that must be conducted on site may continue to work remotely through the summer semester with supervisor approval.

Faculty remote work exemptions

Even with COVID-19 mitigation efforts and the expected widespread availability of vaccines, some individuals may have health-related needs that require adjustments for the fall.

Faculty members who have a health condition that they believe precludes them from teaching in person should visit the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs website and look under the “Instructional Guidance” section for information on the adjustment process and the Faculty Work Adjustment Request Form

Note that approval for a work adjustment through this process is limited to approval for remote work from within the United States. Faculty members with documented disabilities still may request reasonable accommodations under the ADA by contacting the University’s ADA coordinator.

Staff remote work exemptions

Goffe and Diehl stressed that while units should begin to map out the return of staff to the workplace for the fall semester, there are processes and protocols that must be followed by supervisors and managers when determining whether exceptions for interim or ongoing remote work are feasible and appropriate. 

“We certainly recognize that many staff have successfully worked remotely during the pandemic and that some staff may be interested in continuing remote work, even when restrictions to on-site work are lifted,” Goffe said. “With this in mind, the University has convened a Remote Work Task Force to review the costs and benefits of increased reliance on remote work and to make recommendations to senior leadership about how the University’s workforce will operate in the future.”

Goffe said a long-term staff remote work strategy and process will be announced later in 2021.  

In the meantime, her task group has created a process for staff to request an interim remote work arrangement. That guidance document outlines the strategy for interim remote work that will be in place for fall 2021, giving staff and supervisors sufficient time to consider longer term workplace adjustments. Staff that need to continue to work remotely at least some of the time, must discuss their request with their supervisor.

Supervisors must first review the “Supervisors Guide to Assessing Suitability for Remote Work” to review the remote work request process and help them determine whether the employee’s work can effectively be performed remotely. Supervisors should then evaluate whether all of the following criteria are met:

  • The employee is in good standing and has met or exceeded expectations in the last two performance review cycles. New hires may be approved for remote work, but any such arrangements for fall 2021 should be evaluated by the supervisor midsemester.
  • The employee’s work can effectively be performed remotely during the fall semester.
  • The remote work arrangement being proposed enables the employee to continue responsibilities relating to any in-person interactions with students, visitors, customers and fellow employees.
  • The continued interim remote work request does not require unit resources beyond those that have already been devoted to remote work during the pandemic.

Supervisors must also take into consideration their unit’s expectations regarding on-site work. If, in the judgment of the supervisor, all of the above criteria have been met, unit executives, in consultation with Human Resources strategic partners, will give final approval for interim remote work exceptions. At this time, approval for interim remote work may only be granted for the fall 2021 semester.

More details are available in the document titled “Fall 2021 Process for Return to Work Onsite for Staff.”

Staff with documented disabilities also may request reasonable accommodations under the ADA by contacting the University’s ADA coordinator.

Moving forward

Each unit’s Return to Work task force and pandemic safety officers will develop “off ramps” or alternate plans for the fall semester should COVID-19 conditions and resultant health and safety guidelines impede the full return of staff to campus. 

These plans would include analyzing each of the phased groupings to make determinations about which employees should continue remote work based on their roles and responsibilities, similar to the process that was utilized to identify returning employees on site during the summer.

More information will be forthcoming from unit executives and individual supervisors. Information on return to work can be found on the Human Resources’ Return to Work website

Last Updated May 18, 2021