Masking and social distancing classroom policies in effect for fall

Wearing face masks and social distancing will be required in all Penn State classrooms this fall to help reduce the risk of virus transmission. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To help create a safer learning, living and working environment for all students, faculty and staff, new classroom policies will be in effect this fall across Penn State’s campuses in alignment with public health recommendations and Gov. Tom Wolf’s requirements for higher education institutions. Specific policy guidance has been posted to the Office of Student Conduct website.

To reduce the risk of widespread virus transmission, wearing face masks and social distancing will be required for all students and employees in classrooms, labs, offices and campus buildings. Students and employees also should practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings and wear face masks while on campus, as well as within their local communities in line with local and state requirements.

While high levels of compliance are expected based on feedback from recent student and employee University surveys, those who put others at risk by not following the University’s requirements will be held accountable in a manner consistent with how other violations of Penn State guidelines and policies are managed.

“It is absolutely essential that people follow guidelines for masking and social distancing — we know these efforts make a difference,” said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs. “Even if it is inconvenient or difficult, we have no other choice but to fulfill our personal and collective responsibility to protect ourselves and others. This is a serious matter and whether we can keep the virus at bay in our communities and continue with on-campus resident instruction will largely depend on the actions of our entire community — including students’ behavior inside and outside our classrooms, but not only our students. Our faculty and staff must honor these critical expectations, too.”

Classroom expectations

A guidance document, titled “Classroom and Syllabus Guidelines for Instructors Related to COVID-19,” has been drafted and shared with academic leaders. The document is considered a “living document,” according to Kathy Bieschke, vice provost for academic affairs, and the document is expected to evolve as more feedback is received prior to the start of fall classes. University leaders have shared the web link where the document is housed, so that faculty and academic leadership will always have access to the most recent version.

A quick summary of expected behaviors in classrooms, instructional spaces and labs, by all students and instructors includes:

  • Wear face masks or other approved personal protective equipment.
  • Maintain social distance of at least six feet from other individuals.
  • Practice good personal hygiene by covering coughs and sneezes, staying home if sick, and washing hands thoroughly with soap and water or using hand sanitizer before and after class.
  • Follow related guidance communicated by the University and via public postings/signage related to directional traffic flow, maximum occupancy of spaces, assigned seating and closed-off desks/chairs/room sections.

To help support a return to the classroom, the University has purchased more than 500,000 face masks that will be distributed across all campuses and available to students, faculty and staff. In addition, a group focused on personal protective equipment for a wide range of instructional spaces has been launched. A number of options are being tested for faculty, and more information will be provided in the coming weeks.

The University also will work with immunocompromised and other at-risk students and faculty to develop appropriate adjustments, including attempting to identify remote classroom possibilities for those for whom masks are not an option. Students who need special accommodations should contact Student Disability Resources for support.

To encourage students who are sick to stay home and not attend class, faculty are asked to be flexible in their interpretation and management of in-person class attendance.

Compliance and enforcement

“We know students are concerned for the health of themselves and others, and we hope they will honor and follow these requirements and guidelines and that their peers also will encourage good behavior both on and off campus,” said Danny Shaha, assistant vice president for student rights and responsibilities. “However, instances where students do not comply with these requirements in University buildings and classrooms, and put others’ health at risk, will be addressed.”   

Shaha noted that several tools could be put in place to encourage students to follow the University’s requirements — from assigned seating in class to potential impacts on participation grades, to use of the existing student conduct process.

When students fail to meet masking and social distancing guidelines in a way that puts others at risk, faculty are asked to refer students to the Office of Student Conduct, where they will be required to participate in the University's conduct process. Employee violations of these requirements should be directed to the appropriate academic department and/or Office of Human Resources.

“Safety is the top priority for every student, faculty and staff member,” said Bieschke. “As we face this new normal together, faculty and instructors will have the support of the University in enforcing these requirements and upholding a safe learning and teaching environment.”

Classroom safety measures

Among other classroom measures focused on health and safety, all classes of more than 250 students will be delivered online and/or remotely in line with the governor’s requirements; the University will employ enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures in all instructional and lab spaces; and several thousand additional hand sanitizer stations will be placed in high-traffic areas, among other efforts.

As part of this layered approach, distance markers, directional arrows, signs and other visual cues will be installed in classrooms, as well as other high-traffic areas, common areas, study spaces and shared locations, which also will be reconfigured with social-distancing principles in mind. A review of Penn State’s more than 1,700 classrooms, seminar rooms and labs across all instructional campuses has been completed to determine social distancing requirements. Some non-classroom spaces will be repurposed for instruction and every class that meets in person will allow for appropriate social distancing.

As planning progresses for a return to campus, the University will continue to collaborate with students, faculty, staff, and governance and advisory bodies, including the University Faculty Senate and the University Staff Advisory Council, to work through the details of course delivery, classroom and workplace safety, and other aspects of the return to campus. The University's Return to Campus task group has engaged faculty members through focus groups and has sought feedback from the Academic Leadership Council and Faculty Senate related to classroom masking, social distancing requirements and guidance for faculty.

Updated information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus can be found at, including frequently asked questions about employee impacts, classes and academics for faculty and instructors, campuses and facilities, resources and support, and other topics. Faculty may also consult the website for specific information.

Last Updated September 22, 2020