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Penn State Officials Offer Details on COVID-19 Testing, Masking Requirements and More for Fall Semester

by on June 22, 2020 9:59 PM

Over the course of two hourlong, virtual town halls on Monday afternoon, Penn State officials detailed more specifics about returning to campus for the fall semester.

Penn State announced on June 14 its plans to resume on-campus instruction with the start of the fall semester on Aug. 24, including a mix of in-person and online classes. After Thanksgiving break the university will return to online instruction for the remainder of the semester with the goal of reducing the potential for spread of COVID-19 after students and employees travel during the break.

Developed over three months with 16 task groups involving nearly 300 faculty, staff, students and administrators, the plans will meet or exceed Pennsylvania Department of Education guidelines for reopening during the pandemic, Penn State President Eric Barron said.

In making the announcement, Barron outlined a series of mitigation and public health measures the university would be taking — including modifications to classrooms for distancing, limiting class sizes, requiring masks, plans for testing and contact tracing and more — but questions remained. In an open letter, faculty publicly raised a number of concerns they said went unaddressed.

Among those was how they would handle students who refused to wear masks in classes.

Barron said on Monday that masks are required for students, faculty, staff and visitors in classrooms, labs and offices, adding that various studies have shown how important masks and distancing are to controlling the spread of COVID-19. 

"We have the opportunity I think to be forceful with our employees, but we also have, through the student conduct process, the ability to tell a student they do not belong in a classroom if they do not wear a mask and if they do not social distance," Barron said during the town hall for faculty and staff.

Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said that "faculty members have long had considerable influence over behavior in the classroom," and that can be applied to public health requirements, through informal conversations or through participation grading policies.

"Where students fail to comply despite those efforts, faculty members can refer students to our conduct process, the Office of Student Conduct, where students will be required to participate in the disciplinary process before they can return to the classroom," Sims said. "We’ve long had a clause in our student code of conduct that essentially says if you fail to comply with reasonable university expectations you’re in violation of the code. This would be a reasonable directive that students would be expected to honor."

For individuals who cannot wear a mask for reasons such as health conditions or the need to read lips, accommodations will be made through existing affirmative action processes, Vice President for Human Resources Lorraine Goffe said.

Provost Nick Jones noted that the university has already acquired more than 500,000 masks for distribution and thousands of hand sanitizers to be placed at the entrances to classrooms and buildings.

Barron said university community members will be urged to follow mitigation measures in settings outside the university's indoor facilities.

"Our expectations, of course, are that individuals will wear masks on campus and in the community as well as follow other guidelines for distancing and hand washing, for example," Barron said.

In-person classes will be limited to 250 or fewer people, with decisions on smaller classes left to individual units and campuses. Faculty members wrote in their letter, however, that instructors must be allowed to determine how best to deliver their courses and plans must account for those who have health concerns.

Jones said the university will continue working with faculty and academic leadership to finalize plans for course delivery.

"Anyone who is immunocompromised or lives with someone who is, or has some other type of special circumstances, will not be expected to be in the classroom," Jones said.

"Our expectation is that faculty who are able to teach will be doing their best to return to the classroom environment. Our students need the faculty to be present to deliver a robust education and an outstanding educational experience. However, we understand there are many unresolved questions at this time."

Barron added during the student town hall that the university is working to ensure no student will return to campus to find all of their classes have been moved online.

For staff, Goffe said that as units develop plans for a phased return of employees to the workplace, they are considering a number of factors, including positions needed on campus immediately, those that have direct contact with students and the health concerns of individuals and their family members.

"I would encourage any employee to discuss their circumstances with their supervisor, who will consider that along with your whole-unit need as they plan to return to the workplace for individuals in their unit," she said.

As part of the plan to limit travel and spread of the virus, classes will be held on Labor Day. Goffe said it will be left to individual units to decide who is required to work on Labor Day, but that university guidance is to give a vacation day to as many staff members as possible. Those who do work will be compensated according to university policy.

When the university returns to online instruction after Thanksgiving, decisions about remote and on-campus work for individual employees also will be up to units.

Testing and Contact Tracing

Barron previously said Penn State would have a "robust testing and contact-tracing program" program in place and that the university "is building capacity" for isolation and quarantine, including support and facilitating medical care for those who are impacted.

He and Matthew Ferrari, a Penn State biology professor and infectious disease expert who has been leading the planning team's Public Health and Science Assessment task force, offered further insight into those processes on Monday. 

Penn State has developed partnerships with private entities and grown its own testing and contact-tracing capacity, Barron said.

"The scope is to go beyond the requirements of the state of Pennsylvania, which are to test symptomatic individuals and to protect those who are at risk," Barron said. "We have a growing capacity to go much farther than that."

Ferrari described it as "a multi-pronged strategy." The first priority is rapid testing for symptomatic individuals, tracing and testing of contacts, and getting those testing positive or exposed into isolation.

Barron said at the start of the faculty and staff town hall that the Nittany Lion Inn will remain closed through the fall and its 223 guest rooms will be repurposed for isolation spaces as needed. The closure will result in layoffs of 79 employees.

The university also will test asymptomatic individuals to determine the prevalence of the virus on campuses and detect outbreaks.

"The priority of each of these components on the system is going to change over time as the epidemiological conditions develop," Ferrari said. "If we have very few cases on campus we might shift some of that focus to trying to look for asymptomatic individuals and providing the reassurance that indeed things are going as well as we hoped. If there are cases on campus then we might again shift that testing more toward contact tracing and more expanded testing of contacts and contacts of contacts. It’s a flexible approach.

"We’ll be shifting the weight of the process on each of those different strategies so we can address the needs we have that are changing over time and are likely to be different on all of our various campuses."

Student and employee cases will be reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Health and will be reflected in the department's daily county and zip code case number reports. DOH reports cases by county of residency, and Ferrari said college students will be counted at their campus addresses, not their families' home addresses.

"We’re really committed to transparency in this process largely because we want everyone on our campuses and across the community to be well-informed about what’s happening on the campuses and the communities surrounding them," he said. "An informed community is going to play a really important role. If everyone knows what the risks are we can encourage people to increase their distancing or redouble their efforts in wearing masks and increase support for contact tracing and other efforts to combat that spread."

Barron said Penn State is undertaking "an extraordinarily broad set of efforts" for prevention, detection and isolation. Increases in outbreaks and hospitalizations, however, could hasten the university's return to remote instruction, and Barron said individual responsibility will play a key role in prevention.

"It’s important to stress that while we are all enthusiastic about our collective return to campus, how the pandemic continues to unfold across the commonwealth will be greatly impacted by the actions of each and every member of the community in adhering to public health guidelines, which include wearing face masks and adhering to social distancing practices," he said.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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