Answers to questions on faculty input, class modes and ongoing resources

August 20, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As Penn State returns to an in-person, on-campus fall semester, there have been a number of events and activities critical of Penn State’s plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus, including calls from faculty for a vaccine mandate for which President Eric Barron provided a response in his Aug. 12 Open Letter to the Community. Two important concerns contained in a Faculty Senate resolution involve a request that faculty be allowed to choose their preferred mode of instruction, in addition to concerns that faculty and Faculty Senate leadership have not been involved in University planning. The following FAQs provide additional background.

Q: Why can’t faculty choose their own mode of instruction for the fall? 

A: There are a number of reasons. 

To begin with, this is not permitted by the U.S. Department of Education which is monitored by the University’s accrediting body, and doing so could jeopardize Penn State’s ability to operate, result in the loss of significant federal funding, and negatively impact the visa status of international students. Some of the instructional modes used previously were permitted only because of special consent from the U.S. Department of Education and the Middle States Commission for Higher Education (MSCHE), Penn State's accrediting body. As an example, during the pandemic the University was given leeway to enroll students in the same section/course both in-person and online (remote synchronous), but that provision no longer exists. The consent ended May 31, 2021. 

Penn State must meet regulations in offering and reporting requirements, consistent with what MSCHE has approved for it, and be able to manage and monitor the percentage of a degree program that can be completed at a distance. When the number of online courses exceed a certain amount, prior approval is not required if the institution notifies MSCHE within 30 days. Faculty who change a course mode can impact differently every student enrolled in their course. And for international students on campus, a student's visa status may be impacted if their schedule does not include a sufficient number of in-person credits.

Additionally, it is important that Penn State meet the expectations of students who have registered for in-person classes, based on the mode listed in LionPATH. Penn State’s commitment to students and their families to a robust campus environment and adhering to regulations -- as well as being able to report and to safeguard individual student requirements -- is critical to maintaining its world-class reputation. 

Decisions made independently by faculty also have the potential for significant direct negative consequences for students.  For example, a student might find that they are paying for a residence hall room and registered for all in-person classes, only to discover that they are suddenly fully remote.

University officials understand that some faculty may have health-related needs that require adjustments for the fall and so put a robust process in place for faculty to request an adjustment to their in-person teaching responsibilities. It is important to note, Penn State has granted exemptions for faculty who are immunocompromised or live with someone who is immunocompromised, individuals with children who are unvaccinated and are at high risk for complications from the virus, and individuals who, for medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated. As of August 19, more than 68% of requests that were not referred or withdrawn were approved. Additionally, the University has established a requirement for indoor masking for everyone regardless of whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated; strongly encouraged vaccination and made them readily available; continued its advanced disinfection of facilities; asked students, faculty and staff to share their vaccination status; examined every building for the ability to improve air circulation and filtration; and implemented regular testing for those who are unvaccinated or have not shared their vaccination status.

However, in light of the University’s goal to return to in-person learning and other experiences, consistent with health and safety guidelines, for our students for Fall 2021, faculty cannot change the modality of their courses independently or outside of the work adjustment process.

Penn State policy does permit faculty to offer up to 24% of an in-person class remotely, a flexibility that faculty members can use to manage their own absences or unavoidable circumstances, or for pedagogical reasons. Faculty also have the flexibility to manage their office-hours in-person or remotely as they see fit.

Q: What role have Penn State faculty, and the Faculty Senate, had in developing or reviewing the University’s plans for return to in-person teaching this fall?

A: Faculty, whether through its leadership and on their own, have been part of the planning process in the following ways, all of which provide opportunities for input and dialogue, raising concerns, and information sharing with critical colleagues as plans were and are developed and finalized:

Academic Affairs Leadership (AAL)

AAL openly shares information including evolving guidance documents with associate deans, directors of academic affairs, division, school and department heads with the expectation that information will be shared and obstacles noted. In July of 2020, the group invited close to 50 faculty members to join. Some of those faculty also serve(d) roles on University Faculty Senate. The AAL has recently added five new members of Senate leadership. Currently, the group includes 92 individuals with a primary title that includes the breadth of faculty (teaching professors, assistant/associate professors, distinguished professors, etc.). The group met twice a week in summer 2020 and once a week during fall 2020. With the rapid changes due to the Delta variant, the group is again meeting weekly.  Guidance and information on Instructional modes, testing and vaccination strategies, as well as health and safety practices, are examples of topics that have been brought before AAL for input prior to being finalized.

COVID Management Team (CMT)

Meets weekly in summer and twice per week during academic year. The current membership includes the chair of the University Faculty Senate, as well as key University leaders, including the president and provost. Information, plans and protocols from all areas of the University (e.g., Housing, Office of Physical Plant, Student Affairs, Undergraduate Education, Strategic Communications, Intercollegiate Athletics) are shared at every meeting from the co-leads of 11 Task Groups, to seek input from members at all levels, to register concerns/potential challenges, and to review and comment on emerging guidance before that guidance is elevated to the Executive Leadership Team for further consideration and action. The Task Group on Course Continuity and Enrolment Management, for example, is divided into 11 more subgroups populated by about 120 faculty members from across the University. (More information on this is provided below under Course Continuity and Enrollment Management Task Group).  The CMT was established in early spring 2020, even before the pandemic triggered the pivot to remote instruction. It has been meeting ever since.  

Academic Leadership Council (ALC)

Provost Nick Jones chairs these meetings of deans, chancellors, Faculty Senate chair, and other

senior administrators. President Barron also joins depending on topic. The group meets monthly, but also once weekly during the summer and twice weekly during the semester throughout the pandemic. The group discusses various items related to University decisions including matters related to COVID-19; suggested guidelines and procedures for the University’s faculty, students and staff; and matters related to pedagogical decisions. Members of ALC ask questions throughout the meeting and provide substantive feedback from their unit’s perspective, which is used in final decision making. These academic leaders are the key conduits of information back to their constituencies, and frequently receive communications that they distribute broadly to faculty (and staff as appropriate) within their units.

University Faculty Senate  

Has over 200 members for 2021 and meets once monthly during the academic year from September through May. The Senate is an advisory and consultative body to the president and the provost, who are ex officio members of the Senate and Senate Council. The president and the provost often meet with the Senate outside of regularly scheduled meetings when they are invited to do so. The Senate hosted several meetings of Senate Council and committee leadership during the summer of 2020 to which the provost was invited and provided updates and received questions and feedback from these leaders.  The Faculty Senate held a special meeting in May 2021 to discuss COVID-19 and possible fall return to campus, with the provost presenting the University’s draft fall plans and answering questions from senators. About 146 members joined a July special meeting, again discussing and asking the provost questions related to fall return and potential for mandating vaccines. 

The president and provost attend Senate plenary meetings, and the provost attends all Senate Council meetings, and provide updates on the latest COVID developments, and stand for questions.  The president and provost meet monthly with the Faculty Advisory Committee, and COVID has been a regular topic for the past 18 months.  The provost generally meets weekly with the Senate chair, but since summer 2020 that frequency was increased to (nominally) weekly to enable frequent communication about COVID-related matters. That frequency was reduced in summer 2021. 

COVID Operations Control Center (COCC)

The COCC supports University needs specific to the coronavirus pandemic and plays a key role in formulating operational approaches to managing and mitigating COVID 19, including monitoring and testing plans and procedures for all campuses. The full COCC meets weekly, since its establishment in July 2020, and task force leads are invited – including Faculty Senate representatives. There are numerous subgroups that meet weekly, including a team that worked on testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation protocols, as well as operational meetings that take place three times per week. 

Three faculty members work as part of the core COCC team, including Kelly Wolgast, director of the COCC and associate teaching professor of nursing; Cara Exten, assistant professor of nursing; and Nicole Petersen, assistant teaching professor. Other members working with COCC include: 

  • Matt Ferrari, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and associate professor of biology; 
  • Dr. Kevin Black, interim dean of the College of Medicine; 
  • Andrew Read, Evan Pugh Professor of Biology and Entomology and Eberly Professor of Biotechnology; 
  • James Strauss, teaching professor of biology; 
  • Bonj Szczygiel, associate professor of landscape architecture and chair, University Faculty Senate; 
  • Dennis Scanlon, distinguished professor of health policy and administration; 
  • Dave Callejo, associate vice president and senior associate dean and professor of education; 
  • Jeanne Lumadue, instructor of immunology and infectious disease; and 
  • Suresh Kuchipudi, clinical professor and head of microbiology section. 

Course Continuity and Enrollment Management Task Group

This group, co-chaired by Renata Engel, vice provost for Online Education, and Yvonne Gaudelius, vice president and dean for Undergraduate Education, is focused on course continuity and enrollment management, and has met nearly every Wednesday since February 2020. There are a number of sub-teams and faculty members at all ranks and types of appointments (including part-time) from multiple campuses participate. The Team G Faculty Advisory Committee (subgroup), made up of 20 to 30 active members, met frequently to provide substantial input on instructional modes and the associated resources to support the instructional environment. A prime example of input gathering can be seen in the two events held for faculty – one in spring 2021 and one in fall 2021 -- on pedagogical topics related to teaching during a pandemic. In spring, 62 faculty presented and total attendance was 1,214. In fall, 58 faculty presented and total attendance was 791. 

With next week’s return to fall classes around the corner, University faculty, staff and students are encouraged to access the many available written resources that provide an abundance of information about Penn State’s fall on-campus plans and activities. 

  • Penn State News is the official source of news for the University community. This week, Penn State News and Penn State Today features multiple stories related to in-person return to campus, including testing and compliance for faculty, staff and students for fall semester. 
  • The Keep Teaching website, covers teaching topics, as well as health and safety updates, frequently asked questions, policies and guidelines, and an archive of the News Digest for Faculty.
  • Information is provided on COVID-19-related matters and commonly asked questions are answered on Penn States’ Virus Information web site.
Last Updated August 30, 2021