UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the world continues to face the ongoing impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic, Penn State President Eric Barron outlined Friday the University’s actions over the past five months to address the challenges, protect the health and safety of the University community, and prepare for the future.
In a presentation to the Board of Trustees at its virtual meeting on May 8, Barron said the basis of every decision being made is the health and well-being of students, faculty, staff and communities, and the University’s mission of providing a world-class education.
“The pandemic has had an impact, in big and small ways, on everyone and everything at Penn State. While the past months have been difficult for higher education and our nation collectively, our students, faculty and staff have shown incredible resilience,” Barron said. “As we plan for summer and fall, I am optimistic that together our community will continue to meet the challenges ahead of us.”
Looking forward, the University is taking deliberate steps to prepare for a return to residential instruction this fall, while also planning for a variety of potential scenarios should they be needed, including a hybrid model of remote/residential instruction. Three future-focused task groups are currently working together on plans for the infrastructure and processes needed for a return to work and campus, all in accordance with public health and scientific recommendations. More information about plans for a return to campus will be shared with the University community by June 15.
As the pandemic impact persists on higher education institutions globally, Barron noted that a Penn State education continues to be sought by students in the United States and abroad. It is still difficult, however, to predict the impact on undergraduate admissions for the upcoming academic year since the decision deadline for students has been extended as a result of the crisis.
During the presentation, Barron highlighted the importance of Penn State’s research enterprise’s continued ability to generate competitive awards and grants; fundraising network that will be vital as the economy recovers; and strong online and remote learning capacity, which can be accessed by students around the world. All of these factors will be critical to the University’s success moving forward.
Despite the serious financial consequences and projected losses in revenue due to the pandemic, Penn State has a strong foundation thanks to long-term fiscal management strategies and critical reserves, coupled with a series of cost-savings measures that include hiring restrictions; 3% cut in units’ education and general fund budgets for fiscal year 2020-21; and the delay of several capital projects that will save nearly $60 million of planned spending.
During the presentation, the president shared a summary of key institutional measures to manage risks created by the pandemic and highlighted support for students and employees, research efforts and examples of the University community coming together for the greater good.
Beginning in January, Penn State’s senior leaders regularly met to plan and respond to the growing outbreak of a new strain of novel coronavirus — seeking feedback from health and science experts from within the University and beyond. In early March, 12 action groups, led by University administrators and faculty experts, were established to oversee and lead a variety of efforts in critical areas such as campus health preparedness and response.
Throughout the spring, senior leaders have hosted town halls, communicated regularly with the University community, and implemented a series of health and safety focused measures — spanning travel guidance and restrictions for University-affiliated travel, transition to remote learning and teaching, telecommuting for staff, commencement and other events, facilities and more — following directives from local, state and federal governments; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; U.S. Department of State, and World Health Organization.
Among health-focused activities, University Health Services moved to telehealth and set up testing in the ambulance bay at University Park, and the UHS pharmacy began offering curbside service for prescription pick-ups. Counseling and Psychological Services continued to offer vital student services, including same-day phone support, individual counseling through telehealth, and daily virtual Life Hacks sessions.
To support students and lessen the financial impacts caused by the pandemic, the University offered prorated on-campus housing and meal plan reimbursements to students; established and raised nearly $480,000 for a student emergency fund for those in financial need across the commonwealth; adjusted summer tuition, and announced plans to freeze tuition rates for the 2020-21 academic year for all students, which will be voted on for final approval at the Board of Trustees meeting in July. To support faculty and staff, the University paid all workers’ salaries through April 30, and will continue to pay employees who do not have work they can perform at 50% of their salary through June 30.
Penn State also is slated to receive $55 million from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund as part of $14 billion in support for postsecondary institutions and their students under the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as announced by the U.S. Department of Education. Of the total funds, half of the money — or approximately $27.5 million — will be used for emergency financial aid grants for Penn State students, while the rest will be used to support employees and lessen the impacts of the pandemic on the University’s workforce.
Researchers from across the University also are responding to the evolving global crisis in real time. To help accelerate the pace of discovery and inform prevention, diagnostic, treatment, infection control practices and public health policies related to COVID-19, the University joined a global coalition of research organizations pledging to provide immediate open access to emerging research findings related to the outbreak. Penn State also has funded high-impact coronavirus research projects, and Penn State Extension began offering a growing portfolio of coronavirus-related resources — registrations for online courses have topped 78,000.
Among the University’s research efforts, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences provided $2.25 million in seeds grants to 47 teams of researchers from three campuses, 10 colleges and more than 25 departments to conduct COVID-19 research. Since March, these 135 researchers have developed a prototype for a testing-site protective booth, created an online dashboard to monitor the spread of COVID-19, are developing a biosensor platform to detect coronavirus in enclosed spaces, and have created a system to sterilize N95 masks for multiple reuses, among many other efforts.
Community and alumni “We Are” efforts
From donating personal protective equipment (PPE) to first responders to collecting and distributing food to those in need, Penn Staters around the country are demonstrating the “We Are” spirit by stepping up to serve their campuses and local communities. The University initiated an effort to highlight “We Are” moments to celebrate the work of students, faculty, staff and alumni, such as Penn State New Kensington’s “Nittany Neighbors” initiative to support students living off campus and the Penn State research community’s effort to donate 10,000 pieces of PPE to medical facilities like University Health Services (UHS), Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and Mount Nittany Medical Center.
In addition, thousands of alumni also are offering support, including the Shanghai and Beijing Penn State alumni chapters that raised more than $3,500 to purchase masks for UHS and the Penn State Hazleton alumni chapter that collected food for their local community.
Across the state, 21 Invent Penn State LaunchBoxes and Innovation Hubs pivoted to provide free remote courses and other resources to continue to support entrepreneurs and community businesses and WPSU supported a K-12 learning partnership with the PA Department of Education for 105 school districts in its viewing area.
In a unified display of Penn State pride, Penn State Presents: A Virtual Performing Arts Celebration provided an opportunity for the University community to come together while practicing social distancing. The four-night livestreamed event featured musical theatre, theatre and music from Penn State students and alumni and attracted more than 11,500 total views from 23 countries and 47 states.
“From the onset of this pandemic, Penn Staters near and far have banded together, like we always do in the face of adversity — from quickly transitioning to remote teaching and learning, to crossing the finish line of this semester, to caring for one another and those in need during this difficult time,” Barron said. “I’ve never been prouder of Penn State’s students, faculty, staff, families and alumni community.”
For the latest updates and information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including an extensive FAQ and information specific for students, faculty and staff, visit psu.edu/virusinfo.
To view Barron’s full presentation, visit https://www.psu.edu/ur/newsdocuments/presidents_report_May2020.pdf.