Preparations and scenario planning continue for return to campus and work

To support health and safety, University groups prepare for variety of potential scenarios and challenges

Penn State task groups are continuing to prepare for a coordinated phased return to on-campus working, learning and living for students and employees across each of the University’s campuses. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State task groups are continuing to prepare for a coordinated phased return to on-campus working, learning and living for students and employees across each of the University’s campuses. From social distancing procedures, adjustments to on-campus operations and campus life, mask and hygiene practices to testing and tracing, isolation and treatment procedures, the groups are working through a variety of needs to support the health and well-being of community members and provide an excellent education for Penn State students. 

What’s being done?

The three task groups — Public Health and Science Assessment, Return to Work, and Return to Campus and Community — are collaborating closely with University leadership, and 12 other coronavirus action groups, to prepare for a potential return to residential instruction this fall, in accordance with public health and scientific recommendations and directives from Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 

Given the uncertainties related to the pandemic, the potential for state and federal guidelines to change, and Penn State’s own complex campus structure, the task groups and University administrators are planning for a range of alternative academic scenarios, should they be needed, as well as necessary adjustments to campus living and student life beyond the classroom. The scenarios, many of which are being explored by universities across the country, include a hybrid fall model of partial residential/remote instruction, a condensed residential semester, reduction of large classes with an increase of small groups, livestreamed lectures, an adjusted course schedule, and remote/online learning elements, among other options, according to Penn State President Eric Barron. 

“As we look forward, our focus remains on prioritizing the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, visitors and local community members as we have done since the onset of this crisis. Bringing students and employees back to our more than 20 campus locations is a uniquely complex task given the potential unknowns, and our task groups are working tirelessly to examine the multitude of considerations at play,” Barron said. “While we are optimistic and working toward a return to campus this fall, we are not underestimating the pandemic and are being flexible in preparing for a variety of potential scenarios so that we can continue to provide our students with a world-class education.”

Identifying priorities and triggers

The task groups are identifying needs, priorities, criteria, resources and triggers to which decisions will be tied, including, for example, the number of COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and the evolving threat; the number of employees needed on campus to support students upon their return; the continuation of imperative research projects; and activities that can still be accomplished remotely. 

In addition, Gov. Wolf’s plans for reopening Pennsylvania on a county-by-county basis across the commonwealth — as determined by a number of factors such as coronavirus infection rates, public health guidance and overall readiness — will have varying impacts on Penn State’s campuses and may mean that some campuses will open earlier than others. The governor’s plan consists of red, yellow and green phases of readiness, with “green” being the most unrestricted as long as structures are in place and health guidelines are followed.  

“It is complicated and difficult to logistically consider all of the things we must adjust across our campuses to accommodate physical distance between students, employees and visitors,” Barron said. “The need to meet social distancing requirements will continue for some time. We must be flexible, make multiple plans, and be able to adjust quickly if COVID-19 deals us a different hand.”

The workplace

At this time, employees who are currently teleworking should plan to do so through at least the end of May. Even as some Pennsylvania counties move to “yellow status” or partially “reopen,” only employees who receive notice from their supervisors or unit leadership should return to work on campus. Forthcoming plans and recommendations from the task groups will inform University decisions for the second summer session and the fall — which will be announced, according to Barron, by June 15. 

In addition to considering possible triggers for when employees may return to work, also under consideration by the task groups is the order in which employees will return. To date, only those needed for critical on-site work have been permitted back on campus, including those continuing to work in areas such as facilities maintenance, construction, landscaping and lawn care, and readying campus buildings for the student move-out process. All on-campus employees are following pandemic safety rules, including practicing social distancing and wearing face coverings.

Any expanded staffing will be coordinated to minimize potential risk and to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and others. 

Return to work supports student return to campuses

Timing for employees to return to work is tied to a variety of factors, most notably students’ return to campuses, and will be a measured and planned integration across individual programs, colleges, units and campuses. Other likely areas that would need to be phased in early could include the Bursar’s Office, Housing, Information Technology, Environmental Health and Safety, and some research labs.

“Our task groups are working around the clock through a variety of complexities and scenarios we’ve never before faced as a University, or even a country,” Barron said. “Academic institutions are built on a foundation of shared learning, experiences and collaboration. We are adapting campus life and operations to our current unprecedented circumstances, however we will continue to support the highest quality of instruction, research and service.”

In-depth planning

Ahead of more detailed plans to be shared with the University community in June, the following information provides additional insight into the work of the task groups:

Public Health and Science Assessment Task Group: Co-chaired by Jennifer Santiago, assistant vice president and University risk officer; Matt Ferrari, associate professor of biology; and Dennis Scanlon, distinguished professor of health policy and administration

In order to advise University leaders and the other task groups on timing and necessary protocols related to students and employees returning to campus and work, the Public Health and Science Assessment Task Group is tracking current scientific evidence and data — including epidemiological studies and therapeutic advances — and different prevention and mitigation approaches such as physical distancing, personal hygiene behavior, use of personal protective equipment, testing potentially with asymptomatic and symptomatic, contact tracing, health care capacity, and quarantine and isolation. The group also is studying proposed return to work/campus plans and outcomes of local and state governments, as well as announced fall plans of other colleges and universities, to inform and provide guidance on potential campus policies and procedures to put in place to support the health and safety of our communities.

Return to Work Task Group: Co-chaired by Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources, and Abby Diehl, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs

The Return to Work Task Group is examining needs, resources, guidelines for operations, community mitigation, readiness of the workforce, employee training and expectations for public and personal hygiene, among many aspects. The group will recommend new procedures and actions to support a phased return to work for faculty and staff. With the safety of the University community as the top priority, the team is accounting for evolving scientific guidance, various roles and employment types at the University, and multiple needs and differentiators across Penn State’s campuses, colleges and administrative units. Areas of planning and consideration include:

  • Phased approach: Establishing different phases, coordination and timing for a measured return to the workplace, beginning with mission-critical employees; creation of a “work authorization form” for unit supervisors to request permission; determination of resources that must be in place and precautions to take prior to any employee returning to a campus; continuation of remote work where possible; new policies to support a “new normal” and ongoing public health communications for all campuses.
  • Social distancing measures: Office space reconfigurations to maintain social distancing; create restroom, stairway and elevator protocols; examining options for staggered work hours or alternating days of work for employee protection; continuation of remote work where possible; determining what elements must be in place for a unit to change social distancing protocols and taper back remote work; defining criteria for in-person meetings; setting expectations for personal and public hygiene; isolation protocol, self-quarantine guidance and notifications for those who may become ill.
  • Resources/facilities: Temperature checks, testing and contact tracing being investigated; determination of adequate supplies, purchasing options and distribution; creation of protocols for shared spaces, such as meeting rooms, copy rooms, lunch rooms; detailed cleaning procedures; determining necessary visual cues, such as floor decals, colored tape, or signs, to maintain social distancing and health compliance; training for all employees; compliance with OSHA record-keeping operations.  
  • Employee assistance: Employee assistance and wellness programming; childcare and accommodations for employees returning to work; discovery of work/life balance support options; investigating reasonable accommodations for older and/or immunocompromised faculty and staff; focus on mental and physical health of employees, and exploring telehealth options; and examining current University policies to align them appropriately.

Return to Campus and Community Task Group: Co-chaired by Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs; Kelly Austin, associate vice president for administration in the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses; and Jeff Adams, associate vice president and associate dean for Undergraduate Education

In alignment with the other task groups, the Return to Campus and Community Task Group is identifying key needs and developing plans to prepare Penn State’s campuses for undergraduate and graduate resident instruction and student life. In addition, the group is addressing both on-campus and off-campus extracurricular activities enjoyed by students to minimize potential risks. In response to the pandemic and changed University landscape, the group also is working through strategies to provide for a respectful and inclusive environment, and address potential bias and discrimination. Areas of planning and consideration include:

  • Public health: Operational issues related to public health and scientific considerations, including coordinating with local hospitals and medical centers; cleaning and disinfecting procedures in on-campus housing, buildings and common areas; and examining testing, contact tracing, quarantine, isolation and treatment strategies for resident and non-resident campuses.
  • Instructional needs: Health and safety tactics to support a return to residential instruction, including potential adjustments to classroom facilities and setups, class sizes and scheduling strategies, and blended learning (mix of online and in classroom instruction) to enable social distancing in classrooms and labs.
  • Social distancing: Strategies to encourage physical distancing in both academic and non-academic spaces, such as student unions or activity centers, which could include staggered times for students; food service operations; dining commons; on-campus housing and recreational and athletic facilities.
  • Off-campus and community interaction: Coordinating with the community, local agencies, landlords, housing corporations and students to communicate relevant health and safety messages, address neighborhood concerns about student gatherings, and consider and set expectations for activities and gatherings to minimize risks for students and community members.
  • Health and safety policies: Implementing new health and safety policies, such as voluntary and/or required social distancing and personal hygiene expectations; increased signage and ongoing communications campaign to encourage students to practice community expectations.

Beyond the task groups

Among the work happening across the University to plan for the remainder of summer and fall, Senior Vice President for Research Lora Weiss is leading a group to examine considerations and scenarios regarding appropriate timing and needs for increasing on-campus research activities, in collaboration with the task groups, as well as peers across the Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and Big Ten Academic Alliance. This group, focused on research needs, is also undertaking a phased and gradual approach that provides the ability to support physical distancing and other safety protocols. Principal investigators are being asked to develop a plan with a schedule and a checklist for an organized transition with the approval of Environmental Health and Safety, as well as others.

In addition, Intercollegiate Athletics has created work groups to plan for summer and fall, in compliance with forthcoming NCAA guidance, with a focus on sports medicine, practice and play, testing, housing, competitions and travel, social distancing, venues and more. 

“We know everyone is eager about what the future holds, and we will continue to provide updates as available through the summer and beyond. In any scenario, our return to campus life will look different at Penn State, as at any academic institution around the world,” Barron said. “We have teams of experts making sure we can be flexible and do this right to support the health and safety of all our students and employees.”

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

Last Updated May 18, 2020