UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During a virtual Town Hall event today (July 30), Penn State President Eric Barron, along with University leaders, shared with the campus community specific plans that officials have been developing throughout the spring and summer for start of the fall 2020 semester.
“We know how difficult these past few months have been as you are all trying to make the best professional, educational and personal decisions for yourselves and your families. We know these decisions are complicated and stressful,” Barron said at the beginning of the event.
The president emphasized that the University’s commitment to health and safety remains its highest priority. “It is important to reiterate, as we have stated since the beginning of this unprecedented time, we will make our decisions based on medical advice and sound scientific reasoning, and thus we wouldn’t make any specific announcement until our plans were detailed and could be accomplished.”
Joining Barron for the event were:
- Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost;
- Kevin Black, interim dean of the College of Medicine;
- Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs; and
- Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources.
The event addressed a range of topics, including Penn State’s plans for coronavirus testing, surveillance and contract tracing; student requirements; campus safety protocols; and return to work and return to research.
Much of the virtual event focused on the University’s testing plans, isolation and quarantine, and other measures designed to manage the spread of coronavirus and maintain the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, and local communities.
“We first want to minimize the presence of COVID-19 throughout the University and associated communities when students return to campus and throughout the semester,” Black said. To achieve this, Penn State needs to “prevent an increase in disease prevalence so that we do not exceed the ability of the University to quarantine or isolate students, or the capacity of the local health care system.”
Black detailed the University’s pre-testing and testing strategy, which includes all students self-quarantining for a week prior to coming to campus and testing students currently residing in areas where coronavirus cases have spiked.
“While we are expecting all individuals to avoid high-risk behaviors regardless of where they are at all times, we are also asking for everyone to be additionally cautious and to self-quarantine for the week prior to returning to campus,” he said.
Thirty thousand students, faculty and staff currently living in high prevalence areas will receive pre-arrival tests from the company Vault Health. Black explained that individuals will take the saliva test and send the sample to the vendor via UPS seven- to eight days prior to return to campus. Test results will be ready within 48 hours, with the individual and University being informed of the results.
He said it would be logistically challenging and statistically unnecessary to test all students in time for the start of the semester. “To have a test completed four weeks prior to arrival does not contribute meaningfully to reducing disease prevalence upon return to campus,” Black said. “We want the tests submitted as close as possible to return to campus to have the greatest possible effect. This pre-arrival test strategy, focusing on individuals from areas of high disease prevalence, provides us the opportunity to begin the semester with a far lower number of COVID positive people on campus, which is essential for the campuses to remain open through the semester.”
With respect to testing on campus, Black said each campus will have designated testing locations and Penn State is in the midst of finalizing a contract with a national reference laboratory for rapid turnaround of tests. He said the University will conduct surveillance testing on 1% of the population daily to facilitate early detection of a potential outbreak.
“Depending upon campus location, this will be achieved via a combination of testing performed by commercial vendors or the Testing and Surveillance Center in University Park,” he said.
In developing a contact-tracing strategy, Sims said Penn State will take a unified approach that is consistent for all students, faculty and staff, partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and standing up a University operation.
“It will be scaling a number of operations we’ve had in place for years. We’ve had an operation that’s done contact tracing with students when it comes to measles, for instance,” Sims said. “It will be centralized at University Park, but reach out to campuses. We’re going to have as many as 36 contact tracers doing this work for the whole of the University, which is really pretty extraordinary.”
Sims said that for students who fall ill with the coronavirus, they’ll receive extensive support. “We’re going to be symptom monitoring with them. We’re going to be doing physical health checks on a regular basis. We’ll support any mental health concerns that students may have. Students are going to need assistance with academic issues — maybe communicating with faculty and others — we’re going to do that too. We’re going to help with the basics, the fundamentals of providing food, laundry, personal items. The system is designed to allow for all of that.”
He added that employees who are contacted and told they need to self-quarantine will receive assistance through the Office of Human Resources through its absence management program.
Black said that in the next few weeks, the Penn State Go mobile app will feature a symptom checker that will allow users to check potential COVID-related symptoms and receive instructions if needed.
For students who fall ill to the coronavirus, Sims said all students living on any campus will be provided space for isolation and quarantine. Penn State previously announced that a portion of the Eastview Terrace residence complex at University Park campus will be used for isolation and quarantine.
“Students living off campus will also be provided isolation space to the extent that our space allows. There are limitations for that space,” he said. “Off-campus students are encouraged to anticipate the possible need for appropriate plans for quarantining or isolating. We’ll offer them advice and assistance, as that issue arises.”
Sims added, “We have a case manager system in place so that all these students and their families know that we will provide for their needs and offer support and counsel as necessary. It’s a system that’s designed to work very, very well.”
Jones said the University is taking a multi-layered approach to confronting the coronavirus at its campuses, rather than relying on one solution. “The planned effectiveness of our approach doesn’t come from a single intervention or a single ‘layer.’ Pre-arrival testing, quarantine strategies, monitoring local health systems, surveillance sampling, testing of symptomatic and suspected positive individuals — all of these combine to form our integrated strategy,” he said.
When asked what would cause the University to shift classes to full remote learning, Black said the decision to do so would not rely on a single number or indicator.
“Monitoring of COVID-19 will be done on a daily basis using multiple data points,” he said. Rather than focusing on one number, Penn State leaders are examining data points and trend lines and consulting with campus infectious disease experts and local health officials in order to predict cases and support needs in advance.
Black said that decisions would be made at individual campuses and will consider numerous factors, including guidance and directives from the governor, doubling time, the impact on capacity to quarantine and isolate students, the health of the local community, local health care capacity and the number of hospitalizations related to COVID in the surrounding area.
Barron said the University has a tremendous capability to move classes remote, if needed, but added that there is not an “on-off switch.” The University’s nimble and flexible approach to fall semester planning lends it to be able to respond to specific circumstances, for example, a change in state department of health regulations, ramping-down in-person classes but not moving fully remote, or addressing needs at a particular campus or building.
The panelists also addressed a range of other topics during the event:
- COVID-19 Operations Control Center: Barron announced that Kelly Wolgast, assistant dean in the College of Nursing and a retired Army colonel who served as a hospital commander during Hurricane Katrina and in Afghanistan, will lead the new center. The center will focus on data management and reporting; testing and contact tracing; supply chain and procurement; and other efforts.
- Pre-arrival requirements for students: Sims said that before students come to campus, they will be required to sign the Penn State Coronavirus Compact and complete a pre-arrival checklist, which includes self-quarantining for a week before arriving on campus. Sims emphasized that students who fail to follow requirements will be held accountable through the student conduct process.
- Course delivery: Barron said about 50% of classes across the University will have an in-person component, meaning they will either be fully in-person or a hybrid model. Of classes delivered remotely, most will be synchronous. Barron said only about 6% of all classes will be remote asynchronous.
- Move in for on-campus students: This year’s move in will be staggered with students scheduling move-in appointments via eLiving in order to promote social distancing. Sims said move in will begin Aug. 17 and run through Aug. 23.
- Campus life adjustments: When asked about further adjustments the University is making to campus life, Sims said the on-campus dining experience will have reduced capacity at dining halls, but the University will offer online ordering through the Penn State Go app, and grab-and-go meal options for students. Sims said walking or biking will be strongly encouraged, as the Blue and White Loops will not be operating during the fall semester. He added that this year’s Parents and Families Weekend will be held virtually.
- Classroom changes: Jones said the University has been hard at work making physical changes to classrooms to promote social distancing, and facilities across campuses will be subject to increased frequency of cleanings. He said new signage will be displayed across all campuses reminding everyone of required behaviors, including masking and social distancing.
- Support and expectations for faculty: The provost said faculty will follow enhanced safety protocols in the classrooms, and the University has ordered personal protective equipment to support faculty in the classroom. Jones added that instructors will be supported in enforcing critical safety measures, including the mask wearing policy, and will be given additional masks to provide to students who arrive to class without one.
- Phased return for employees: Goffe said University leadership understands and shares employees’ concerns, including those with medical needs and child care requirements. Per Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest guidance, she said employees who can telecommute should continue doing so. For the employees who are returning to campus, the University has been putting in place equipment — such as sanitizing stations — and processes to promote safety.
- Community collaboration: Barron said the University is focused on the welfare of communities around Penn State campuses and has been and will continue to work closely with local partners. The president said Penn State is encouraging local governments’ efforts to put into place rules and ordnances to promote the health and safety of all community members.
“The other key element of this is we can’t do this alone. We need you to focus on personal responsibility and to be our partner,” Barron said. “It’s the only way that Back to State can be successful.”
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Penn State leaders have hosted a number of town hall events to discuss the University’s response, including a pair of virtual town halls for students and faculty and staff on March 24, a follow-up event on May 19 and another pair for students and faculty and staff on June 22. Virtual town halls have also been hosted by the Graduate School and the Office of Global Programs.
University leaders have hosted Town Hall meetings since 2015 to provide members of the Penn State community opportunities to receive updates on University initiatives, hear from administrative leaders about key issues, ask questions and provide feedback.
Updated information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus pandemic can be found online at https://virusinfo.psu.edu/.