Campus Life

Penn State working diligently to enhance health and safety across campuses

How University employees are rallying to make campus safer for students, faculty and staff this fall

Penn Staters in units including the Office of Physical Plant and Housing and Food Services have been hard at work preparing for a safe and healthy Back to State. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As students, faculty and staff get ready to return to Penn State for the fall semester, there are hundreds of University employees who are hard at work behind the scenes preparing campus for their arrival.

Among these groups are Penn State’s Office of the Physical Plant (OPP) and Housing and Food Services (HFS). While these groups are always vital, they are especially critical now as the University implements new safety measures in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bill Sitzabee, vice president for facilities management and planning, said that while two of the main tenets of working to keep campus safe are wearing masks and social distancing, one of OPP’s first steps to prepare campus was to also boost cleaning and disinfecting efforts.

Penn State may include more than 2,000 buildings across all campuses, including 900 at University Park, but Sitzabee said the OPP team has been working hard to plan and prepare for a safe and healthy return to campuses.

“We have great variability in our building types, and with different systems and specifications, so the breadth of what we have to do has to be adapted specifically to the buildings,” Sitzabee said. “One thing we’re doing for all of our buildings is to shift from a cleaning protocol to a cleaning and disinfecting protocol. Our staff went through a comprehensive training program to learn best practices, for example, making sure the disinfectant is allowed to sit on surfaces for the correct amount of time before being wiped down.”

In addition, Sitzabee said there are numerous other efforts underway to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading on campus. The University has purchased 6,000 hand sanitizer stations, with up to 3,000 of them to be installed at University Park, 1,200 being deployed to the campuses, and the remainders to be available for purchase by units. Hands-free faucets are being installed in some of the most high-traffic areas on campus, and Plexiglas sneeze guards, while limited in application, will also be installed where appropriate.

In preparation for Back to State, Penn State plans to install 6,000 new hand sanitizer stations across all campuses and locations. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

While optimistic that these measures will be effective, Sitzabee said there also are plans in place for if — and when — cases emerge. The first step would be to isolate the impacted space in which the exposure occurred. Once the space has been empty for 24 hours — allowing any virus-containing aerosols to settle — OPP staff would then disinfect the interior before re-opening.

Of course, it may not be possible to close some spaces for that length of time, such as University Health Services. In those cases, Sitzabee said the team has a secret weapon — their electrostatic sprayers.

Credit: Office of the Physical PlantAll Rights Reserved.

“The sprayers, which have a backpack design and look similar to something you’d use to spray for bugs, electrostatically charge the disinfectant so it has positive ions which then attract the negative ions of the virus,” Sitzabee said. “So the disinfectant can go after it, and find it, and kill it. And we're able to fog large areas with that process.”

Additionally, OPP is using a multitude of other strategies to boost safety. They are in the process of upgrading the air conditioning filters from ones with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 8 rating to ones with a MERV 13 rating, which use material similar to that in N95 masks and can filter smaller particles. They also have changed the mechanical systems in many buildings on campuses to use more outside air, instead of recirculated inside air, to improve ventilation.

Sitzabee said that while he and his team are working hard to prepare campus, there also are simple practices anyone can do to help make campus safer.

“Our efforts are part of a multi-layered systems approach, and any one thing is not going to be a panacea to mitigate this,” Sitzabee said. “Everybody can do their part to contribute. Wearing masks and social distancing are some of the critical first layers of protection and something everybody can do to help us all. And if you're sick, stay home.”

The University is also working hard to create a safe and healthy environment not only in the classroom, but in residential and dining facilities as well — the elements that make Penn State home.

John Papazoglou, associate vice president of Auxiliary and Business Services, said that the health and safety of students is his top concern.

Among the changes made were finding new ways to use existing spaces on campus such as closing the Nittany Lion Inn to visitors and events, and instead using it for additional classroom space and single-occupancy housing for students at University Park. Papazoglou said while it was a difficult decision, the safety of students and the rest of the University and State College community were of utmost importance.

“The luxury of having a hotel on campus is something that not all universities have,” Papazoglou explained. “We are fortunate to be able to accommodate the need for safe spaces for students.”

Cheryl Fabrizi, assistant vice president for Penn State Housing and Food Services, said the student experience will look different starting from the moment they arrive on campus. While move-in typically takes place over a three-day period, this year it will take place across an entire week to help lower the population density of students and families on campus at any given time.

Inside resident halls, student rooms and public spaces will reflect occupancy guidelines. Dining commons and retail locations, including the HUB, will have new customer traffic flows, different seating capacities and configurations, and enhanced styles of service, such as mobile ordering and all-to-go options, to also promote contactless transactions, physical distancing, and to minimize lines.

Fabrizi added that with Commonwealth Campuses located across the state, the work doesn’t stop with University Park. Residential campuses like Penn State Abington, Altoona, Berks, Brandywine, Beaver, Behrend, Harrisburg, Hazelton, Greater Alleghany and Mont Alto, will reflect similar housing and food service approaches and best practices.

“We're taking everything we're doing here at University Park and scaling it to fit each of the Commonwealth Campuses, too," Fabrizi said. "Consistency has been extremely important to our work throughout this pandemic. In order to create a robust plan, we had to make sure each facet and each part was working together to create a safer and student-centric experience, no matter what campus they're at."

In addition to changing the layout of the dining halls, Papazoglou said the team is also rethinking how it provides services. One challenge has been to expedite the introduction of mobile ordering into the food services model. With many people nervous about places where large groups of people may be gathering and lining up — like in the student union — Papazoglou said it was important to minimize lines, which mobile ordering can do.

While the process of making campus safer for all Penn Staters is still ongoing, Papazoglou said he is continually impressed and grateful for everything University employees have accomplished in the last several months.

“We have hundreds of employees here who, despite all of the challenges and sacrifices they’d had to make in the past several months, have worked really hard to continue to make Penn State home for our students, faculty, staff and visitors,” Papazoglou said. “Things might look different than they did last year, but we have an incredible group of people who have been committed to making the University safer and more comfortable, even in these trying times.”

For more information about OPP’s cleaning and disinfecting regimen, visit the Environmental Health and Safety website.

Last Updated August 10, 2020