Penn State leaders answer student questions at virtual town hall

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State leaders hosted a virtual town hall meeting March 24 to answer questions and provide information to students and families about the measures Penn State has taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and protect the health and well-being of students, faculty, staff and community members.

The student-focused town hall followed a similar virtual event dedicated to answering questions from faculty and staff.

Penn State President Eric Barron hosted the virtual meeting for students and families, and was joined by Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost; Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs; Renata Engel, vice provost for online education; Yvonne Gaudelius, associate vice president and senior associate dean for undergraduate education; and Matthew Ferrari, associate professor of biology and researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

“Thank you for joining us in what I know is a very stressful time. I want you to know the decisions we’re making as a University are based first and foremost on the health and safety of students, faculty and staff members,” Barron said. “This is an unprecedented situation and there is no way that something like a pandemic is not going to have a significant impact on your university and you. We understand it’s a challenge, but we really are all hands on deck. I want you to know how much I appreciate that you are jumping in and doing what needs to be done to get across to the finish line this semester. The things I’m seeing from our students, faculty and staff are truly remarkable.”

The livestreamed town hall provided an opportunity for students, family members and employees to submit questions in advance and hear from Penn State leaders in an open, but safe manner that enabled viewers and panelists to practice social distancing.

“It’s important to note that this virus affects everyone in the community. While COVID disease is less severe in younger individuals, even a mild infection can still be transmitted onward and put other people at risk,” Ferrari said. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to take on the responsibility of preventing that risk both to ourselves and others. This virus might be with us for some time, and at the moment, physical distancing and hygiene are the best tools we have at our disposal to try and buy time to strengthen the health systems that are keeping us healthy now, and to develop new therapies that are going to help keep us healthy in the future.”

During the town hall meeting, Jones shared that more than 63,000 students and faculty participated remotely across more than 350 Zoom sessions on the first morning of remote learning.

“That was an incredible achievement,” Jones said. “As we enter our second week of remote learning, we know this is a major adjustment and that while there are some challenges associated with synchronous instruction, being together during this difficult time as a learning community is incredibly important for student success and for students to help one another to achieve learning outcomes.”

Barron added that students in the class he teaches have expressed that they appreciate the opportunity to continue to stay connected in real-time during class.

“I was really impressed by the extent to which the students in my class were thoughtful, engaged, and participating in class and how rich the discussion turned out to be,” Barron said. “One student even said, ‘by being here all together and being able to see each other, I get to know that my classmates are all right.’ This takes us to this sense of community, which is so incredibly important and that defines Penn State.”

During the meeting, Engel covered topics from remote learning and remote teaching to the role of instructional designers to unique lab courses, and shared resources for faculty, including World Campus, Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence and Teaching and Learning with Technology.

For students with circumstances that make elements of remote learning difficult, Gaudelius encouraged them to reach out to their faculty members, who are encouraged to be flexible, support students and help them be successful in their coursework.

When asked about students and families returning to campus to move out of dorm rooms, Sims said that plans will be made for students to collect their belongings when it can be done safely.

“We understand that students are anxious to retrieve their belongings. As circumstances change and we get to a place in the future where people can come back and retrieve their belongings safely, they’ll be able to do so,” Sims said. “It’s important to know there are exceptions, and we have students for example who left medications that are very important to their welfare. Our colleagues in Housing and Residence Life will work with students to make sure accommodations are made. We want to do the best we can for students in every instance and address your needs.”

Audience questions ranged from grades to postponed spring commencement ceremonies to off-campus housing.

Regarding grading for the spring semester, Jones said a group has been working on the issue for several weeks and the goal is to focus on giving undergraduate students choice and flexibility to determine if they would like to keep their earned letter grade or choose a designation of “satisfactory, passing or no grade.”

Details also will be shared about a two-phased approach for spring commencement that includes a virtual component where degrees are awarded virtually, followed by an in-person celebration in the future.

“We want to celebrate your accomplishments and for you to have that moment that is so special with your classmates,” Barron said. “We’re working on a second phase of commencement, which is yet to be defined because it depends on the evolution of this pandemic, where we can truly come together on our campuses and celebrate your many achievements.”

When asked about summer courses, Jones said the University is hoping for the best but planning for a scenario in which remote learning would continue through summer based on the evolving outbreak.

In response to questions about refunds, panelists reiterated that students will be refunded for their prorated University room and board rates through the rest of the academic year, and that there are no plans to refund tuition and fees since the University continues to fulfill its educational mission, and as students continue to access services like Counseling and Psychological Services and Student Legal Services, for example, which are supported by student fees.

To support students facing financial difficulties related to off-campus housing leases, Sims said the University is mindful and communicating with local authorities, landlords and student leaders, where possible, to encourage strategies to minimize the impact on students.

“These are private contractual relationships, so it’s hard for us to directly interfere, but we’re trying to partner with landlords to see that accommodations that are appropriate will be met,” Sims said. “Where a student is unable to meet this need, we’re having conversations and looking at ways we can relieve some of the burden through our Student Emergency Fund.”

Penn State leaders recognized that many students are experiencing financial strain and that there are resources available for students in need of emergency assistance. Students are encouraged to review support resources available through the Student Care and Advocacy office within Student Affairs, which includes a link to the Student Emergency Fund application.

In recent weeks, approximately 1,200 individuals have raised more than $100,000 to support the Student Care and Advocacy Fund, according to Barron.

“Our primary concern is always the safety and well-being of our Penn State community, and our mission over the last several weeks has been to keep our students on track to meet their graduation and course requirements for the semester,” Jones said. “Everyone has answered that call, including our faculty, staff, and you, our students, who stepped up with very little warning. We know you have a lot of questions, and while we may not have all the answers, we remain dedicated to working together in these times ahead.”

With limited time to answer every question during the event, students and parents can review the FAQs at psu.edu/virusinfo/faqs, which have been and will continue to be updated following the town hall. To view both the student and employee Town Halls in their entirety, the sessions will soon be archived and available to watch online at LiveEvents.psu.edu.

Since 2015, Town Hall meetings have provided opportunities for members of the Penn State community to receive updates on University initiatives, hear from administrative leaders about key issues, ask questions and provide feedback.