Community-Wide Committee Prepares for Return of Students; Penn State Plans Town Hall
July 28, 2020 9:41 AM
by Geoff Rushton
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A committee representing local government, business and the university is working to address COVID-19 testing, contact-tracing and more as the Centre Region prepares for the return of Penn State students and visitors in August.

Penn State administrators also will host a virtual town hall at 3 p.m. on Thursday to discuss more specifics about the university's return to campus plans.

The committee has been in the works for a few weeks and, according to a news release on Monday, is working collaboratively on testing, contact-tracing, quarantining/isolation, enforcement/compliance and communication. 

“While Penn State’s leadership has been in ongoing contact with local government and community leaders since the beginning of this pandemic, I am pleased this committee has come together to work through the many challenges ahead of us as we plan for students’ return to campus,” Zack Moore, Penn State vice president for government and community relations, said in a release.

Communication has been at the heart of growing concern among some community members and local officials who have said the university's various public communications and prior town halls about its return plans have neglected to discuss key specifics.

"They all talk at us and they say the same thing month after month after month," State College Borough Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said during Monday night's Centre Region Council of Government General Forum meeting. "They have not incorporated any of our concerns and they don’t care."

"It’s late in the game," Ferguson Township Supervisor Laura Dininni said. "We need to know how testing is going to roll out. We need to know what capacity for testing is at the university. We need to understand contact tracing and how that is going to work and is it going to include community members or is it just going to be reserved to students, faculty and staff. We talked about being in this together. Community members don’t know the answers to these questions yet. Penn State, you're the ones with the answers to these questions and we really need to know how prepared we are to deal with what’s going to occur."

To be sure, the university's sprawling, months-long planning has been extensive, addressing an array of aspects related to course instruction, return to work and enforcement of public health guidelines. A university news release on Monday, for example, noted Penn State has now acquired 2 million masks, 14,000 face shields and 8,000 clear masks as part of its PPE plan for campus and classrooms.

But community members and elected officials have said the public discussion lacked important information about how exactly testing and contact-tracing will work and how it will help enforce public health measures such as quarantining both on and off campus.

The 11-member committee announced on Monday intends for addressing those issues to be a collaborative process. The committee is comprised of representatives from Penn State, State College Borough administration, Centre County government, Mount Nittany Health, Downtown State College Improvement District and the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County.

“It is crucial that our community has these open lines of communication and that we collaborate to ensure our collective health and safety through this ongoing pandemic," said Tom Charles, executive vice president of Mount Nittany Health and a committee member. “Everyone must work together to reinforce and engage in practices to prevent and contain the spread of the virus in order to keep our community strong. We are in this together."

In announcing its plans to return to campus last month, Penn State administrators said they would meet or exceed all state guidelines for reopening and would have a "robust" testing and contact-tracing program.

Penn State President Eric Barron said in an open letter last week that supply chain issues and testing capabilities prevented the university from providing more detailed plans.

"We have been working diligently on a robust capability, guided by medical science, of testing and contact tracing that is based on partnerships with private providers, local and state governments, and growth in internal capabilities," Barron said. "A robust capability for testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine is a critical and necessary requirement for face-to-face education. The university is preparing to announce the implementation of a comprehensive testing and tracing plan in the very near future."

Details are expected to be provided during Thursday's town hall, which can be viewed at liveevents.psu.edu.

The committee is also focused on solutions for rapid COVID-19 testing at volume and ensuring effective contact-tracing.

“Working together is more important than ever as our community at large faces the challenges ahead,” Centre County Administrator Margaret Gray said. “Efforts to secure essential resources and services such as contact tracing are certainly enhanced by a strong partnership that focuses on coordination across all aspects of this public health crisis.”

Charima Young, Penn State director of local government and community relations, said during the COG meeting that Thursday's town hall also would discuss thresholds for the university to switch to all remote instruction, but added that it is more complicated than a specific number of cases.

"There’s a lot of complexity to that," she said. "There’s no set answer just in terms of 'if this is the number we’re going to turn everything around.'"

The anticipated return of thousands of students to the Centre Region in August has been met with growing unease by community members concerned about a surge in spread of COVID-19.

That's been further exacerbated by the 43 new COVID-19 cases reported in Centre County on Sunday, nearly four times the previous largest single-day increase. Mount Nittany Health noticed the unusual spike in new positives on Friday and contacted the Department of Health. Shawn Kauffman, Centre Region emergency management coordinator, said on Monday that Mount Nittany had resampled the tests involved and sent them directly to DOH for testing, with results expected this week.

After the weekend of July 10-12 — which would have been the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts before it was made a virtual event for this year — saw large numbers of visitors to downtown State College and lines outside bars, State College Borough Council discussed ordinances that may provide local enforcement for mandatory masking downtown and further limit outdoor gathering sizes.

Borough Council is expected to vote on those measures on Aug. 4.

“In the coming weeks, the State College Borough Council will be taking up a mask enforcement ordinance,” State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said. “If passed, there will be penalties for those that do not comply with the mask requirement.” 

The university has also been working on an online and physical messaging campaign aimed at promoting public health guidelines and compliance, which is expected to be rolled out in the next two weeks.

Some community members have urged the university not to return to in-person instruction at all. The Coalition of Graduate Employees petitioned the university to switch to all online instruction and to publicly release its existing plans for what would trigger a move to all online instruction.

"It’s clear that the medical infrastructure in State College is not equipped to handle potentially 40,000 students returning to State College and returning from areas that are experiencing the pandemic at much higher and more severe rates than we are right now," said Margarita Hernandez, a coalition member and anthropology graduate student. "There are many people that are both within the Penn State community and within the local community that are concerned about the students returning."

Several COG members agreed that the university needs to rethink its plans for in-person instruction. But, Young said, students who have off-campus leases are returning to town, regardless of whether classes are online or in-person.

Because of that, local officials should focus on what can be done to make the return as safe as possible, said Ferguson Township Supervisor Steve Miller.

"What we really need to be doing is figuring out what we can do given the assumption the students are going to be here, because they are," Miller said. "No matter what happens with the university, the students are going to be here in the next month and if there’s anything we can do to be ready for it we should. But arguing about whether they should be coming or not is pointless, because they are."

Rob Schmidt, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, said business owners have been less concerned about students than about visitors from nearby counties who refuse to wear masks.

"[Students] are members of our community. We should not ostracize them. We should work together to make it work," Schmidt said. "They’re the reason we’re here and frankly the downtown business people I’ve spoken to are comfortable with the students that have been here this summer... Students have been cooperative; they've been wearing masks...

"I think we need to work and welcome them back to the community and do what we can to accept them. The comments I get from most businesses is that they’re more concerned about visitors from adjacent counties that come in and refuse to wear masks. They have more problems with that."

 

 

 

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