Penn State York goes online, York County Prison readies for coronavirus

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
York County Prison Monday, June 10, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

Penn State University announced Wednesday that all campuses, including the York campus, would be moving to an online format and that students should not return to campus after spring break in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The news came the same day York County officials discussed limiting some types of visits at York County Prison, along with other measures aimed at preventing infection among inmates and staff.

"The best mechanism for prevention based on advice from experts is social distancing, and unfortunately that is very difficult in a university setting," university President Eric J. Barron said in a written statement Wednesday.

Penn State will keep its 24 campuses open for faculty and staff, but all classes will be taught online beginning March 16, with a plan to return to regular classes no earlier than April 6, Barron stated.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Pennsylvania had 14 presumed positive cases and two confirmed cases of COVID-19, a respiratory illness that's particularly dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, according to the state Department of Health.

All student-sponsored events and activities at Penn State will be canceled or postponed, and the university recommended that other nonessential events be canceled, rescheduled or offered virtually.

Events that are considered "essential" and are expected to have more than 50 people will have to be approved by the school provost.

Penn State could extend the online-class format beyond April 6 if needed, and there are contingency plans in place if the virus impacts commencement ceremonies, university spokesman Wyatt DuBois said Wednesday via email.

Nine of the state's 16 COVID-19 cases are in Montgomery County, which led state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel to implement screening of all employees and visitors at State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, the state prison in Montgomery County.

Those screening protocols could be extended to other state prisons as more cases are detected throughout Pennsylvania, according to a Corrections Department news release.

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Locally, York County Prison is already preparing and responding to the virus outbreak.

Most visits at York County Prison don't allow person-to-person contact, Warden Clair Doll said at a York County Prison Board meeting Wednesday.

Non-contact visits utilize phones on either side of a see-through panel.

But inmates on work release are allowed to have physical contact in their visits, Doll said, as are incarcerated parents who have court-ordered visits with their children.

Beginning March 14, contact visits for inmates on work release will be suspended, and following two days of family visits scheduled next week for inmates with children, court-ordered family contact visits will also be suspended.

Regular, non-contact visits will continue unless a coronavirus case is detected in York County or a staff shortage makes it too risky, Doll said.

Having alternative forms of communication for inmates and their families — such as video visitation, email and messaging capabilities on tablets — will make it easier to handle the fallout from curtailing visits, Doll said.

"There’s a fear of the unknown," Doll said. "And sometimes just having that communication is so important to be able to allay fears, and especially within the prison environment."

Inmates will also undergo additional screening before leaving for court appearances and when they return from court, and new inmates will be screened for signs of illness or infection as soon as they arrive at the prison.

In standard practice, new inmates are screened within four hours of arriving.

The changes at the prison aren't limited to screening inmates and limiting contact with visitors.

Some policies will be relaxed, such as the rule prohibiting employees from bringing alcohol-based hand sanitizer to work. These are the sanitizers recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to kill the virus.

"We’re essential employees, so we have to report, even when everyone else is staying home," Doll said.

More:UPDATE: PSU York tells students to stay home, moving online as coronavirus spreads