Penn State will return to on-campus instruction and operations this fall — but it won't be a typical semester.
The university announced on Sunday night that classes will begin as scheduled on Aug. 24. with campus-based instruction ending on Nov. 20. The remainder of the semester, including final exams, will be delivered remotely online when classes resume after Thanksgiving break . The semester will end on Dec. 18 as planned.
Classes will be held on Labor Day, Sept. 7, to minimize travel and the risk of spreading COVID-19.
The schedule is part of the university's "Back to State" plan for returning students and employees to campus, developed over the past three months since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic shut down campus operations. Sixteen task groups involving more than 250 students, faculty and staff developed the plans with guidance from faculty scientific and public health experts.
“I am pleased that the hard work of our task groups over the last few months has led us to this plan that will allow us to bring our campus communities back together,” President Eric Barron said in a statement. “The Penn State experience may look somewhat different this fall, but I am very much looking forward to seeing our campuses busy with students, faculty and staff once again. I know I speak for the leadership at each of our campuses when I say we are looking forward to welcoming our students back and greeting, for the first time, our new students.”
Penn State "can meet or exceed the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s guidelines for colleges and universities," according to a university news release.
The plan to end on-campus instruction by Thanksgiving is similar to those already announced by many other universities around the country.
Fall classes will be a mix of in-person and online instruction and all classes of of more than 250 students delivered online. Campuses and academic units will determine how to deliver smaller classes following university guidance.
"Faculty are expected to be flexible in their interpretation and management of class attendance so that sick students can stay home, and the university will work with immunocompromised and other at-risk students to develop appropriate accommodations," a Penn State news release said. "For students who are unable to return to any campus this fall, there are flexible options so that they can continue to make progress toward their degrees."
A "robust testing and contact-tracing program," will be in place to test symptomatic individuals as well as those identified through the contact-tracing process. Additional employees will be hired as needed for contact-tracing and the university "is building capacity" for isolation and quarantine, including support and facilitating medical care for those who are impacted.
Prevention and public health procedures will be in place, including standards for masking and social distancing.
Classrooms and labs have been evaluated for accommodating social distancing needs and some non-instructional spaces will be repurposed for classes. Other measures may include assigned seating and monitoring attendance for contact-tracing purposes. Some indoor areas will be modified, with plexiglass shields and one-way traffic patterns.
"These efforts, along with the flexible educational model — delivering many classes remotely or online, or both — will allow the university to lower classroom population density, facilitate social distancing and meet both its educational and safety goals," the release said.
Barron previously 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.
Certain students and employees will begin returning in phases through the summer. The university is screening students prior to their return and asking them to self-quarantine.
While some employees have continued to work on campus over the past three months, more have begun to return in phases. Others whose work requires them to be on campus will begin returning over the summer, such as those who will prepare facilities for the return of students.
"Employees who are currently telecommuting but whose work can be more effectively performed on campus will be the next group to return to on-site work," the release said. "As the university continues to monitor developments, employees who can effectively fulfill work responsibilities remotely will be the last group to return to their workplaces, although some employees may continue telecommuting for the foreseeable future."
University child care centers will reopen following state guidelines to accommodate employees who are returning to work on campus.
In a recent university survey of employees, almost two-thirds (63%) self-assessed their COVID-19 risk as “moderate to high.” Fourteen percent of faculty said they were unwilling to return to in-person instruction and 26 percent said they were unwilling to have in-person office hours. Among all employees, 74 percent said their workplaces needed changes to accommodate social distancing.
Whether on-campus activities will be able to continue as planned through the fall will be "greatly impacted," by the personal responsibility of each campus community member.
“The importance of each individual’s behavior in stopping the spread of coronavirus cannot be overstated,” said Matt Ferrari, associate professor of biology. “There are a few key elements: Wear personal protective equipment or, for most of our community, face masks; maintain social and physical distancing of at least six feet from other individuals; and wash your hands frequently with soap and water.”
Two online town halls will be held to address questions about the fall semester — one at 3:30 p.m. on June 19 for faculty and staff and another for students and parents at 3:30 p.m. on June 22. Both will be broadcast at liveevents.psu.edu.