Barron discusses Penn State’s fall return to campus for trustees

July 15, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After a phased return to on-campus learning and activities throughout the summer, Penn State President Eric Barron outlined Thursday the University’s plans to support a return to a full on-campus learning environment this fall semester and beyond.

In a presentation to the Penn State Board of Trustees at its July 15 hybrid meeting, Barron said the health and well-being of students, faculty, staff and local community members remain a priority and that COVID-19 strategies will remain in place as the University continues to provide support, stay vigilant, and prepare contingency plans in the event the state or nation’s COVID outlook changes.

“We are excited for a return to a full on-campus experience and to welcoming new students, including one of the largest groups of underrepresented students in University history, to our community,” Barron said. “A return to normal is becoming tangible, yet safety remains our focus. We know we can pivot quickly and effectively to fulfill our land-grant mission and are applying what we learned during the pandemic to continue to innovate.”

This fall, consistent with pre-COVID numbers, more than 95% of courses at University Park and 88% of courses at Commonwealth Campuses are scheduled to be delivered in person using non-COVID modes of instruction, while a full range of online and World Campus classes will continue to be offered.

During the meeting, Barron highlighted ways the Penn State community has excelled throughout the past year. Among the many examples of the University’s resiliency are a record-setting year for Sponsored Research Awards; landmark giving with the sixth highest year in total new gifts, including a $27.125 million gift to the College of Nursing that is the second-largest single commitment to an academic unit in Penn State’s history; significant community participation in panel conversations focused on diversity, equity and inclusion at an enterprise level; future-focused strategic planning; a record-breaking 111,000 first-year applications; and more.

COVID-19

Barron outlined the University’s fall COVID-19 strategies, including plans shared in May to transition masking and physical distancing requirements to more closely align with changes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health that relaxed COVID-19 restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals. While masking outdoors and physical distancing are no longer required, individuals who are not fully vaccinated are required to wear face masks inside campus buildings.

The University continues to take steps to strongly encourage, incentivize and assess vaccine participation among the Penn State community. Students, faculty and staff are encouraged to share their vaccination status to help Penn State understand how many people are vaccinated and to continue to inform COVID-19 management plans. Vaccines are widely available across the Commonwealth at locations close to Penn State campuses, and many locations do not require an appointment. At University Park, University Health Services is a vaccine point of distribution for students and each Penn State campus also has identified community vaccine resources.

Among operational efforts that will remain in place for the fall are ongoing symptomatic and asymptomatic testing as needed, in-house testing capacity at the Testing and Surveillance Center (TASC) at University Park, centralized contact tracing, quarantine and isolation capacity at each campus, and wastewater analysis at University Park. In addition, updates to the COVID-19 Dashboard will continue throughout the semester and the Penn State COVID-19 Call Center and COVID-19 Operations Control Center will remain operational.

If pandemic conditions change or worsen in Pennsylvania or the nation, Barron said the University is prepared to quickly respond and to implement contingency plans, which could include expanded testing expectations for non-vaccinated individuals, additional mitigation actions such as more masking and/or physical distancing, and the implementation of any revised guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health or CDC.

Return to campus

With student arrival and Welcome Week approaching, Barron provided updates on current applications and enrollment levels, noting that more than 71.5% of first-year applicants have used a new test-optional process to apply to Penn State.

At this time, overall first-year applications are up by 15% to 110,993 for summer and fall 2021-22 — an all-time University record. International applications are down by 2.7%, with applications from China down 18% and applications from other countries up 20%.

In addition, overall first-year commitments are up 2% from this time last year at 18,037 — with commitments for University Park down 0.7%, Commonwealth Campuses up 5.6% and World Campus down 0.2%. Underrepresented first-year student commitments are up 18.6% — one of the largest cohorts in Penn State history. Given the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, international first-year commitments are down 14.1% and transfer commitments are down 10.2%. Community colleges were hard hit during the pandemic and have not experienced the usual uptick in college enrollment following a recession, so Penn State is continuing to prioritize establishing close relations with community colleges.

While the University anticipates most international students will be able to attend this fall, international students are continuing to face challenges as they prepare to travel to the United States. Global Programs is providing guidance and advising students on arranging visas, adhering to national travel restrictions and getting vaccinations. Through spring and summer, the office hosted a series of online town halls in multiple languages for international students and their families.

As the flow of international students to the United States will likely continue be different than before the pandemic, an International Student Recruitment and Experience Task Force is researching opportunities to bolster international recruitment and partnerships. It is also reviewing current international student experiences at Penn State to make recommendations.

With faculty and staff preparing to return to on-campus work in August, balancing functional needs of the University with the personal and health-related concerns of employees returning to on-site work is a priority, according to Barron.

This fall, the priority is to have a full on-campus experience with students, faculty and staff, although hybrid and remote working arrangements may be considered based on the criteria on the Return to Work website. Recognizing that many staff have successfully worked remotely during the pandemic, a Remote Work Task Force is examining the costs and benefits of increased reliance on remote work and will develop a long-term strategy and process that will be shared later in 2021.

Lessons learned

Lessons learned throughout the pandemic will continue to lead the way for future opportunities for growth and innovation. Notably, the expansion of virtual programming across the University in 2020 and 2021 supported increased engagement in areas ranging from enrollment, academic advising, tutoring and career services to commencement, conferences and more.

For example, virtual offerings in Career Services supported more equal access to programming, along with a greater diversity of employers and smaller businesses that were able to participate. This year, more than 20% of students who attended programs virtually were from Commonwealth Campuses compared to 5% the year before. Based on survey preferences from attendees, this fall’s programming will be a hybrid format.

Barron’s full presentation is available to view online.

Last Updated July 15, 2021