Barron, University leaders discuss COVID response at September Town Hall event

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the fall semester in full swing and students back on campus, Penn State President Eric Barron and University leaders convened a virtual Town Hall event today (Sept. 23) for faculty and staff to discuss Penn State’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic and its plans for the remainder of the academic year.

Joining Barron for the virtual Town Hall were:

  • Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost;
  • Dr. Kevin Black, interim dean of the College of Medicine;
  • Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources; and
  • Kelly Wolgast, director of the Penn State COVID-19 Operations Control Center.

At the start of the hourlong livestream event, Barron thanked faculty and staff members for their hard work in making Return to Campus possible, and acknowledged the issues the University continues to face.

“This semester has not been without its challenges,” he said. “I know some faculty feel we should revert to remote at this time. We are not seeing the indicators that might compel a change of our course at this time, but we certainly are monitoring all aspects carefully.”

The president immediately addressed the rise in the number of COVID-positive students, and faculty concerns about Penn State’s plans to mitigate the virus. Barron said the University’s multilayered approach, which includes pre-arrival testing, symptomatic and asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation has allowed the institution to effectively monitor and manage the spread of the coronavirus. 

Barron responded to continued calls to announce an exact figure that would prompt Penn State to shift to remote learning. 

“Many have asked for a specific number that would cause us to change course. It’s important to understand that it’s not one single number that will dictate our decisions and actions. Our ability to continue on-campus activities will be determined by several considerations,” he said, citing factors including daily testing results, local hospitalizations, spread from students to employees and the local community, and the University’s quarantine and isolation capacity.

Barron continued, “It is that focus that is allowing us to go forward. Hospitalizations remain at very low levels, very little change in quarantine and isolation [capacity] and not seeing transfer from students to faculty — these are the keys for us moving forward.” 

Black added, “Some have suggested we switch to remote learning now and have students return to their communities. Our students are not infecting faculty and sharing disease with each other in the classroom setting. It’s a very safe setting to be in. At the same time, we’ve received recommendations from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and Dr. [Deborah] Birx [White House coronavirus response coordinator] and Dr. [Anthony] Fauci [director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases], that the wrong thing to do would be to take the students and send them back to their home communities at this point in time.”

Barron described some of the options available to University leadership if cases flare up at a Penn State location. “We can place an entire cohort of students in a program in quarantine. We can look at a building for which we’re seeing too many cases and take steps for that building. We could take a residence hall and decide that it should go into quarantine for a two-week period because we’re seeing too many cases. We could do the same thing at an individual campus where we see growth. We could decide that the entire University should take a two-week pause to control changes in the virus. Or, in fact, we could decide to take all of Penn State to remote learning. So there are multiple off-ramps and even some on-ramps. So it’s important to think in this context that there’s not just one number.”

In discussing Penn State’s ongoing random surveillance testing program for faculty and staff, Wolgast announced that Penn State will soon be offering walk-up testing for University Park employees who are concerned they may be infected. “We’ll be reserving periods for University Park employees who want to be tested,” she said.

At Commonwealth Campuses, Wolgast said a variety of methods are currently available for faculty and staff testing, and they can reach out to their campus representatives for details.

Black said that since the start of the University’s surveillance efforts, only one employee has tested positive for COVID. “There have been some additional employees who have become COVID positive and symptomatic, but they became infected related to activities outside of the work environment,” he said.

Black continued, “It is important to recognize while this is a tremendously serious disease that we should all be concerned about, the vast majority of people that are infected with COVID either have no symptoms or mild- to moderate symptoms. In looking at the numbers at Mount Nittany Medical Center [in State College], the number of admissions has continued to remain in the low single digits, which is significantly less than the numbers that they had in the hospital in the springtime. We are not seeing an increase in the number of admissions to Mount Nittany, or a significant increase in emergency room visits related to COVID.” 

When asked about why the University isn’t testing people more frequently as other institutions have done, Black said, “Testing is important, and the University has done a lot of testing. It’s important to realize that testing is one part of the strategy, and the testing strategy is not just about how many people and how often. Testing does not treat the disease. The best strategy to prevent infection is what the CDC tells us about physical distancing, hand washing and facial protection.” 

As the conversation turned to student behavior, Barron said he was heartened by the positive reaction to the University’s “Mask Up or Pack Up” campaign. “I would like to say how proud I am of the fact that so many students, faculty and staff are paying attention. As I travel around campus and I see the masking, as I teach my own class face to face and see the social distancing and masking, I’m just incredibly proud that so many people are taking it seriously.”

In addition, the president addressed potential sanctions for students. “If we have cases for which students are not following the rules, we have to be able to take action. We have several of those cases going through the student conduct process and we will see sanctions for students that basically just flouted the rules and put other people in our University community at risk.”

Employees submitting questions also expressed concerns about how students’ return for fall semester has impacted the local communities.

“This is an incredibly important topic,” Barron said. “It’s one of the reasons why from the beginning, we made contact tracing an important element of what we’re doing — to understand how it might be spreading, to understand whether or not there’s spread from students to faculty or to a community. And so far, the evidence is good. This is the reason why we’re working with so many partners, working with the borough to encourage them to pass ordinances that focus on behavior and have fines for people who aren’t paying attention. It’s the reason why we eagerly and happily agreed to collaborate with the Department of Health to put more testing and more tracing within Centre County.” 

With some young children of faculty and staff members learning remotely, the panel said the University is encouraging managers and supervisors to offer flexibility to employees trying to balance the demands of work and their children’s schooling.

“We continue to recognize how stressful this situation is for our employees, especially those who are caring for school-aged children,” Goffe said. “As we’ve said previously, we are encouraging individuals to speak with their supervisors regarding their personal circumstances so they may receive support. We are encouraging supervisors to be flexible and creative in how and when our employees get their work done.”

In addition, the panel addressed a range of other topics during the event:

  • The return of football and the ban on tailgating: Barron said new medical strategies designed with the health and well-being of Penn State student-athletes as a primary focus which led him to vote in favor of allowing the football season to proceed. However, he cautioned that this season will be different, and by beginning play this should not be seen as a sign that we are moving toward a relaxed atmosphere. There will be no tailgating allowed around Beaver Stadium or on any campus property. In addition, the University will be working with the community to discourage gameday visits to State College by students’ friends, alumni and others.
  • Students informing faculty of infection: Jones said he was happy to see students taking proactive measures to inform their instructors of a positive COVID test. The provost said Penn State’s process to inform faculty members is a measured approach designed to preserve privacy and may follow students’ direct communication with their instructors. Jones said as a matter of policy, the University will provide confidential notifications to faculty, instructors or supervisors to enable accommodations and support. He added that instructors will not be told specific information — unless the student gives permission — about why a student will not be in class or if a student is in isolation or quarantine.
  • Faculty participation: Jones thanked University faculty for their involvement in making Return to Campus possible. “Thanks to faculty participation in this process, senior leadership has incorporated the input of hundreds of faculty and staff members within our University in our return to and current campus operations.” He said faculty have been involved, and continue to be involved, at all levels.
  • The future of remote work: Goffe said the University has learned a great deal about remote work since the transition in March. She said the current focus is safety, and Penn State will look to incorporate lessons from remote work in the future after the pandemic.
  • Faculty and staff travel, campus visitors: Jones reminded faculty and staff that travel restrictions remain in place across the institution, and that domestic travel approval is being handled by unit leaders, and international travel must be cleared through the provost’s office. “We know travel is an important aspect for not only our faculty members, but a number of our staff as well,” he said. “We continue to strongly discourage personal and professional travel, especially as we enter cold and flu season.” Jones said some visitors are necessary, such as inviting job candidates to interview on campus or technicians to install specialized equipment, but invited lectures should continue to be conducted online. 
  • COVID’s impact on Penn State research: Jones cited the University’s recent announcement of a record $1 billion in research expenditures as evidence of the health of the University’s research enterprise. He said research will continue with COVID safety measures in place.
  • Spring 2021 semester: Barron said University leadership has been actively exploring options for the spring semester and said Penn State will have more the share with the campus community soon.

At the close of the event, Barron urged the University community to remain vigilant, and reminded students, faculty and staff to get their flu shots. University Health Services’ annual flu vaccine clinics for students run through Nov. 10, and Penn State Human Resources recently announced a three-pronged approach for employee flu vaccine clinics.

“It’s vitally important that we protect not only ourselves, but those around us,” he said. “This pandemic has tested our Penn State community in a way that nothing else has, and I’m proud of how everyone has risen to meet this unprecedented challenge.”

The Sept. 23 virtual Town Hall will be archived and available for viewing soon at https://LiveEvents.psu.edu/. Individuals who watched the event are encouraged to fill out this anonymous survey.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, University leaders have hosted numerous virtual Town Hall events, including, including a pair of town halls for students and faculty and staff on March 24, a follow-up event on May 19, another pair for students and faculty and staff on June 22 and one for the University community on July 31. 

For the latest information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus, go to https://virusinfo.psu.edu/

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