Administration

Barron, guests answer employee pandemic questions during webcast

President Eric Barron, and guests, took time to answer various questions about vaccines, the return to work on campus, health and safety and other topics from Penn State faculty and staff during a livestream event on March 31. Credit: Pat Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — University leaders took time to answer an array of questions from Penn State faculty and staff during a livestream event today (March 31) about the University’s response to the coronavirus, employees returning to work on campus, health and safety of the community and other topics related to the pandemic.

Penn State President Eric Barron hosted the event, along with panelists Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources and chief human resources officer, and Kelly Wolgast, director of the COVID-19 Operations Control Center.

“It’s been over a year now since the coronavirus changed our lives, and overall I am very pleased with the way our faculty, staff and students have responded and come together as a community,” Barron said as he opened the webcast. “Our faculty found new ways to teach and conduct research under difficult circumstances. Many of our staff have remained on campus, working in critical areas while adhering to health and safety guidelines. Students have remained flexible and have followed guidelines. Many of you took on new roles to help guide us through this pandemic, but all of us have learned new ways to work.” 

The President thanked faculty and staff for their efforts over the past 13 months and for their flexibility during the ongoing pandemic. As vaccines become more available, he said, he is optimistic that the University will be successful in its plans to have a full slate of in-person courses in the fall and in bringing employees back to campus. 

Barron also stressed the need to continue to follow state and federal guidelines.

“I am greatly concerned with the recent uptick in COVID-19 positivity rates both locally and nationally,” he said. “You may have joined last week to hear from myself and our local leaders in our appeal to the campus and local community to redouble our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. To be successful in our plans for summer and fall, however, we all must continue to do our part: Wear a mask, continue to physically distance from those outside your household or pod, avoid large gatherings and practice good hygiene.”

As Barron began the discussion, he acknowledged the numerous questions around the COVID-19 vaccines, the University's plans for return to work and other concerns, but emphasized that plans are still being developed based on continually changing health and safety guidance from state and federal agencies, as well as other factors.

Vaccines

Pennsylvania is currently in Phase 1A of its vaccination distribution plan, which includes those most at-risk of illness, as well as individuals specifically announced by the Department of Health, such as K-12 educators and staff, child care workers, and emergency first responders. Barron noted that higher education workers who are in contact with students — including faculty and staff as well as students who help provide instructional, health-related or other services on behalf of Penn State — will be eligible under the commonwealth’s priority Phase 1B, which the Pennsylvania Department of Health today announced will begin on April 5. All Pennsylvania residents age 16 or older will be eligible to start scheduling vaccination appointments on April 19.

Currently, the University has no vaccine requirement; however, vaccination is strongly encouraged and University leaders are continuing to monitor vaccine availability and data, which may alter the University’s approach in the future if it is determined to be in the best interest of the community or called for by public policy.

Goffe stressed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidance for those who are vaccinated is to continue to wear a mask and maintain physical distance from others, and these guidelines are requirements on Penn State campuses.

Wolgast further noted that the state is currently not making vaccines available to employers to distribute to their employees or for universities to distribute to their students. At present, Penn State has not been named a distribution site for COVID-19 vaccines, however University leaders are having conversations with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to further explore the possibility of hosting a site.   

Should the state’s strategy change and vaccines become available for Penn State’s pharmacy or for a large-scale vaccination program, Penn State is prepared. The University has procured freezers capable of storing the vaccines at the appropriate temperatures and have identified facilities where vaccine doses could be delivered to the community. 

Penn State is working with community partners who are delivering vaccines including Center Volunteers in Medicine (CVIM). CVIM used the Bryce Jordan Center (BJC) for a vaccine clinic in March and will again use the BJC in the first week of April.

While Goffe explained that widespread vaccination can bolster the return to campus plans, there are some individuals who may not be able to receive a vaccination for health reasons, or other reasons.

Return to Work, Employee Health and Safety 

As for returning to work on site, Barron said that the University will see more employees gradually come back to the campuses over the summer, prioritizing those who support, and have interactions with, students. 

A task group focused on planning for employees’ return to their workplaces, comprised of 20 faculty, staff and administrators from colleges, campuses and units across the University, is drafting a transition plan for the increase of on-campus employees during summer and into the fall. 

Barron, Goffe and Wolgast at various times during the webinar reiterated that the health and safety of employees, as well as the entire community, remains the University’s highest priority. The task group’s plan is driven by health and safety guidance issued by the state of Pennsylvania and the CDC, as well as the availability of vaccines. The group is taking extra care when formulating return to work plans due to the recent uptick in cases across the state and nation.

As the task group formulates its recommendations, more information will be shared in the future. All plans, as they have been from the beginning of the pandemic, are flexible and have multiple contingencies and off ramps due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. 

Penn State will work with immunocompromised employees and others at high risk or those who live with high-risk individuals on their work arrangements. Goffe said the University will continue to be supportive of employees with young children, as there is concern for child care over the summer and the state of the local schools in the fall. Employees who have concerns about their situation should talk to their supervisor or Human Resources representative.

“I must say, I have been incredibly impressed by our faculty and staff and what they’ve done,” Barron said. “Stepping up because of the pandemic, being fully productive, many people being innovative—it has just been so inspiring to watch the faculty and staff and how they have dealt with these issues. Counterbalancing that, and importantly, is what it takes to deliver the very best educational experience for our students. We want to keep in mind what the mission of our institution is. A lot of thought is going into this right now.”

Barron also noted that while Penn State expects circumstances to allow employees to be fully back on campus in the fall, there may be some measures that need to continue, such as quarantine and isolation. 

Wolgast explained that, similar to fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, that the University will share more information about the testing strategy and quarantine, isolation and contact tracing plans as they become finalized closer to the summer and fall semesters.

Wolgast further noted: “We are a different University that we were a year ago. We now have a lot of our policies that were in place polished and working very well, we have enhanced technology helping us to do contact tracing much quicker, we have rapid testing capabilities now that are students are using, and we have a CLIA-certified lab on campus at University Park that we did not have last semester.”

Additional topics:

  • Many of the health and safety measures that have been put into place will continue, which includes enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of classrooms and other spaces on campus and adherence to guidelines coming from the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
  • Telework continues to be mandated in Pennsylvania when possible, and Penn State is in contact with the Department of Health and Department of Education to learn more about future guidelines as they evolve. Leadership is looking separately at areas of remote work and how they may be integrated into normal University operations.
  • As the University has done in advance of the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, more information will be shared about testing strategies and quarantine, as well as isolation and contact tracing plans as they are finalized closer to the summer and fall. 

General salary increases

Barron noted that general salary increases (GSI) for employees are a priority for his administration; however, it’s too early to determine what a GSI may look like, if there is one. He explained that his administration is in the budget planning cycle now and developing projections for the next fiscal year and the next five years.  

He also recognized the extraordinary efforts of faculty and staff over the past year. He said that many employees have gone above and beyond and found new ways to work, put in extra hours, and took on new responsibilities.

“I truly believe we have bright days ahead, so, while you may be fatigued today, think about tomorrow,” he said. 

A stronger university

When asked what the University has learned from the pandemic and what lessons it will take with it after the pandemic ends, Barron noted that, in many ways, the University has become stronger as a result of COVID-19.

“This is a University that steps up to a challenge,” he said. “That combination of effort by necessity and investment has actually, I think, advanced the ability of this institution in the future to continue to meet students where they are. … There are a lot of positive outcomes that have advanced the University.”

Additional information

The March 31 webcast will be archived and available for viewing soon at LiveEvents.psu.edu.

For the latest information on Penn State’s response to COVID-19, please visit the University’s official virus information website.

Last Updated April 02, 2021