Trustees discuss efforts taken for the return of students

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The University’s commitment to and strong partnership with the local community has been central to its pandemic response, according to a presentation today (Sept. 17) to Penn State’s Board of Trustees Committee on Outreach, Development and Community Relations. With the goal of creating a safe and healthy environment for the entire community, a community-wide committee comprised of Penn State and local government and community leaders prepared for the return of students to the area this fall. 

Representatives from Penn State and the State College community reported on their collective efforts to limit the impacts of COVID-19 with the increase in local activity at the beginning of the fall semester. Penn State’s Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims, Vice President for Strategic Communications Lawrence Lokman and Vice President for Government and Community Relations Zack Moore were joined by State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine and President and CEO of the Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County Vern Squier.

Coordination across all areas of public health has been essential, said officials, and collaboration and open communication have been invaluable in navigating the many challenges posed by the pandemic.

To help protect the community, especially the most vulnerable, the group emphasized the benefit of being unified in planning and action. Discussion touched on work in the areas of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, quarantining and isolation, enforcement and compliance, and messaging and communications. With the health and safety of everyone in the area a top priority, the community-wide committee continues to work closely across municipal leaders, University officials, local public health authorities, local businesses, landlords and law enforcement. 

Additional members of the committee include:

  • Tom Charles, executive vice president, Mount Nittany Health
  • Margaret Gray, administrator, Centre County Government 
  • Tom King, assistant borough manager of public safety, State College Borough
  • Rob Schmidt, executive director, Downtown State College Improvement District 
  • Douglas Shontz, assistant to the manager, State College Borough
  • Charima Young, director of local government and community relations, Penn State

“This engagement is so important because there’s really two-way communication. While we spend a fair amount of time from Penn State’s perspective answering questions and providing briefings, we also do a lot of problem-solving together, and we receive important information about what is happening in the community,” Moore said.

Moore talked about partnerships being instrumental in creating consistency of expectations and enforcement. The State College borough led the region in terms of passing an ordinance around mask-wearing and gatherings. Subsequently, the committee worked closely with the townships in the region, and several have passed similar ordinances based off the State College ordinance. This has created consistency across the region, not just for students, but for everyone in the community.

Fountaine pointed to the “Mask Up or Pack Up” campaign creating a seamless message across town and gown. “If you happen to be in State College and are downtown, you will see street light banners with “Mask Up State College” and “Mask Up or Pack Up” to emphasize that message and the importance of wearing masks and social distancing, along with all of the guidance we have received from the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.”

On Aug. 13, Penn State launched “Mask Up or Pack Up,” a research-based, grassroots social marketing campaign, to remind faculty, staff and students at all 24 campuses and in adjacent communities of the importance of doing their part to limit the spread of COVID-19, especially for those who are most vulnerable. Integrating prominent, clear communications with University health and safety guidelines was essential in the effort to influence behavior and enforce compliance. Creating one unified town/gown message for use on and off campus also was essential to maximizing the campaign’s impact.

Fountaine discussed the critical sharing of information around positive COVID-19 cases, which has supported preparedness efforts and coordination with respect to quarantine and isolation as well as the local healthcare system.

Squier reiterated the importance of the social marketing campaign being executed on a united front. “It has been very valuable, in fact essential, to this moment. Our belief in the business community was that we had to have a message that was going to be very universal, understandable, and emphatic and equitable in its nature. It had to give some sense of what expectations were going to be in the community, literally on the street, when it came to behaviors, physical distancing and masking.”

He went on to explain that the campaign facilitated the development of the local ordinances, as the municipalities beyond  State College appreciated that there would be a consistent and clear communications effort to support them.

Sims pointed to the University/community partnership’s long history as essential to tackle the challenges of the pandemic. 

“This theme of partnership is really something that you’re hearing throughout this conversation. It’s extremely important to understand that this is not something that we just created out of whole cloth for this moment,” Sims said. “These are relationships that we had and have had for a long time …  very good and constructive relationships. Had we had to create this from the beginning when we faced this crisis, we would not be in the position we’re in right now.”

Sims outlined specific positive outcomes, such as open dialogue with landlords in the community. With two-thirds of University Park students living off campus, landlords expressed a desire to partner together to learn how they could support larger efforts. Sims emphasized that it would have been much harder to engage with them had it not been for the involvement of community groups facilitating communication on a regular basis. 

Lokman reiterated that real-time University-community collaboration has allowed for expedited responses when needed. For example, over Labor Day when there were some reports about large gatherings, the team recommended a University health and safety text alert go out to students, faculty and staff, in addition to other communications, which garnered attention and helped to quell some of the activity.

Lokman continued, “The Mask Up or Pack Up campaign and communications could not have happened without the work in the community and the engagement of landlords and business owners who are putting the materials out there. We’re seeing very high levels of visibility and engagement through peer influencers from students to faculty to prominent alumni like Lara Spencer and Patrick Fabian and many others.” 

Lokman closed the discussion by spotlighting a social media post by one of the peer influencers of the campaign, Anna Camden, forward for the Penn State women’s basketball team. Campaign insights pointed to peer-to-peer messaging as the optimal strategy for all key stakeholders, including faculty and staff, and this organic approach to spreading the word has allowed for audiences to gain valuable information from those they typically turn to and trust. 

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