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Penn State on Track to Meet Safety Guidelines for Reopening, Barron Says

by on June 04, 2020 7:24 PM

While Penn State has yet to announce plans for the fall semester, President Eric Barron said the university plans to meet or exceed the state's guidelines for reopening to in-person instruction.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education on Wednesday issued preliminary guidance for colleges and universities to reopen, a 16-page document outlining guidelines for COVID-19 mitigation measures and requiring a health and safety plan to be in place before resuming operations.

“We’re grateful to have this guidance specific to higher education and we’re especially pleased that the Education Department’s expectations align with what Penn State would consider essential to welcome students and employees back to our campuses,” Barron said in a news release on Wednesday night. “This guidance will be helpful as we continue to scenario plan and we are committed to meeting and, where possible, exceeding all of the department’s expectations before we bring students, faculty and staff back to our campuses. The health and safety of our community is the priority across all of our campuses.”

Colleges and universities are permitted to resume in-person classes as soon as Friday, with those in green phase areas like Centre County requiring fewer restrictions than those yellow phase counties. Though Penn State already is continuing with online instruction for the summer, it previously left the door open for a phased return to campus later in the summer.

On Wednesday, Barron said Penn State is "looking at bringing some small cohorts of students back to campus this summer, with health and safety needs at the forefront of our planning,” adding that some research activities have already resumed

Penn State intends to announce its plans for the fall semester by June 15. Three task groups and 12 action groups have been working since March to address a variety of challenges arising from the pandemic, including how to return to work and classes.

The Department of Education guidance calls for a number of practices and procedures to be in place, including a publicly available plan for coordinating with local health officials, monitoring campus health conditions, mitigating and containing the spread of the virus and communicating accurate and timely information to students, faculty and staff.

Universities must require face coverings in most circumstances, implement physical distancing, modify facilities to prevent the spread of the virus and reinforce hygiene and sanitation practices on campus. Hand sanitizer and wipes should be readily available and schools should provide masks to as many students as possible.

Barron said in May that Penn State had already acquired 500,000 masks for distribution and 2,500 hand sanitizer stations to be deployed across all of its locations. 

Non-instructional gatherings in green phase areas are restricted to 250 people.

Gov. Tom Wolf said that even for counties in the green phase, it is not a "return to normal." Universities could have to return to remote instruction if safety guidelines weren't followed and there was an outbreak of the virus. He added that he was alarmed by reports from some college towns.

“I’m especially troubled by reports that some students are returning to college towns and ignoring these practices,” Wolf said. “No one wants to see any portion of the Commonwealth revert to a closed operational state because of a resurgence of COVID-19. Each of us must do our part to protect community health and minimize the spread of the virus, by not gathering in large groups, wearing a face mask, maintaining six feet distance between people, and other key protections.”

Other guidelines include installing plastic partitions in areas like student service counters, cash registers or bathrooms where social distancing practices may not be feasible. Universities should reduce common seating areas such as classrooms, libraries and dining halls. Student events and meetings are advised to continue with remote hosting if possible.

The guidelines also suggest limiting class size and implementing a six-foot social distancing guideline in areas where possible, and a staggered and restricted number of occupants for the use of gyms and lounges. 

Face coverings should be used in residence halls in any shared spaces, with the exception of a student’s individual room. For students who may have contract coronavirus or otherwise have exposure to it, universities may reserve a separate residence hall for quarantining in order to contain a potential spread.

Specific guidelines are outlined for what a university should do if there is a confirmed coronavirus case on campus. The first step an institution must take is to report the case to the Department of Health and emergency management personnel. If there is a confirmed case, a required campus closure of between two to five days may also happen.

All areas of campus must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and the university must communicate potential exposure information to students, staff, or faculty.

Penn State officials said they have made clear expectations for students, faculty, staff and visitors to each campus. Those include:

- Avoid congregating in large groups. Do not gather in groups, stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings.

- Maintain physical distance between other people. Stay at least six feet from other people who do not live in the same household.

- Wear a mask or face covering. Wearing a mask helps reduce community transmission, particularly from asymptomatic individuals. Covering your face protects other people. When other people wear masks, they are protecting you.

- Avoid high-touch surfaces, especially those in public spaces. Please be aware that while every effort is made, building exteriors, benches, campus landmarks and popular spots on campus are not regularly cleaned or disinfected. Remain cautious.

- Wash your hands frequently, cover your coughs and sneezes, and stay home if you’re sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidance on how to protect yourself and others from the spread of coronavirus.

The task groups have been evaluating various scenarios for the fall including a hybrid 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 others.

“Penn State is a large and complex organization with nearly 100,000 students on 24 campuses across the Commonwealth, some in rural areas and some in harder hit urban areas, so our task groups are carefully and thoughtfully looking at a variety of scenarios that will work for our individual locations,” Barron said.

Onward State's Ryen Gailey contributed to this report.

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