Penn State campuses to open for in-person instruction this fall

Penn State York Chancellor David Christiansen shown outside of the John J. Romano Administration Building at Penn State York in Spring Garden Township, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert

Penn State University will resume classes in person this fall, with a flexible model that includes socially-distanced classrooms, contact tracing and for some, a few classes online.

The university system, which includes Penn State York and 23 other campuses, announced Sunday its plan to reopen.

Those campuses have been shuttered since March 16, when officials moved all spring semester classes online, one of many lockdowns that were part of efforts to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

The reopening plans include a shortened fall semester — with in-person instruction beginning Aug. 24 and ending Nov. 20. The remainder of classes will continue online through Dec. 18.

Final exams will be delivered remotely, and online classes will resume after Thanksgiving break to reduce risk of spreading the coronavirus from travel.

That also means classes will be held on Labor Day.

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“I think it will look different. We won’t have some of the large gatherings we normally expect. We are going to have to reconfigure some of our spaces on campus," Penn State York Chancellor David Christiansen said Monday.

This means spacing out tables and chairs in gathering areas, holding select events that allow for social distancing and keeping dining areas to limited occupancy.

In general, clubs and organizations will be able to meet, he said, ensuring they follow precautions, but that will depend on their size and the decision of leadership.

For the past three months, Penn State University officials have been planning with 16 task force groups, including input from faculty science and health experts.

About 50 students graduate during the Penn State York annual fall semester commencement, Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.
John A. Pavoncello photo

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The more than 1,700 classrooms, seminar rooms and labs across all campuses will have socially-distanced seating, and some nonclassroom spaces  will be used as overflow.

Plexiglass and one-way routes will be considered for indoor spaces, as well as assigned seating and a hybrid approach, with some classes taught online to reduce capacity.

Officials say the university plans to buy supplies in bulk to reduce expenses.

Christiansen said his classrooms will not open unless social distancing can be ensured. Medium-sized classes will likely move into larger spaces, and larger classes will move into areas such as the community room or conference center.

Larger classes might use remote learning occasionally or have part of the class attend some days and switch out with the others so everyone gets a chance at face-to-face instruction, he said.  

All classes of 250 or more across campuses will be delivered remotely — and most will be synchronous, or live, lessons.

“This is based on strong evidence of greater academic success by establishing robust learning communities and environments,” according to the universitywide plans.

But Penn State York does not have any classes that large.

“Our philosophy is a more intimate classroom setting,” Christiansen said.

Part of the reason a safe return is expected is contact tracing — meaning identifying anyone who came into contact with an infected individual — which has been impossible to do statewide with such large numbers. 

Once identified, that individual's information will be sent to the University Park campus, which has been working with Penn State Hershey epidemiologists.

Some campuses plan to build capacity to isolate and treat infected individuals.

This will not be necessary on Penn State York campus, as the commuter campus has no residence halls.

For campuses that do have residence halls, Christiansen said officials will hold rooms to a cap of two students and likely create an isolation wing for anyone exposed.

“The importance of each individual’s behavior in stopping the spread of coronavirus cannot be overstated,” said Matt Ferrari, associate professor of biology, in the Penn State release.

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Students will be asked to sign a pledge to adhere to basic public health expectations on and off campus. 

Penn State York would not have consequences should students or faculty flout the rules, but they would be addressed individually, Christiansen said.

"It’s all about education and explaining why it’s important to follow these guidelines," he said.

A survey of more than 16,000 students across several campuses shows that 35% are willing to do whatever it takes for safety.

The survey, conducted in May by the university, also revealed that more than half of participants say their psychological well-being and their ability to pursue their studies is "worse or much worse than before the pandemic,” according to a news release.

Results indicate a majority of students are willing to undertake measures such as wearing masks and social distancing on campus.

Penn State will hold a virtual town hall for students and families 3:30-4:30 p.m. Monday, June 22, and more information will be released this summer.

Penn State York plans to hold its own town hall next week, with dates and times to be announced.

Rendering for the Graham Center for Innovation and Collaboration, a new location for the Graham Fellows program expected to be complete by the summer of 2020. The project will break ground at Penn State York campus Wednesday, April 17.

Penn State York officials say students are eager to get back, and Christiansen noted they will return to a newly completed Graham Center for Innovation and Collaboration and main cClassroom renovations.

"I’m ready to be back on campus," he said. "Three months of sitting in my basement on Zoom meetings is enough for a lifetime."