Penn State launches phased return to campus

University will hire additional staff to work as contact tracers to better detect cases and stymie future outbreaks
By: | June 17, 2020

Some students have already returned to Penn State’s campus for a mostly online summer session as the institution prepares to reopen in fall 2020.

With the Back To State plan, Penn State’s leaders believe they can resume limited in-person instruction while meeting or exceeding the state’s guidelines for colleges and universities.

“The Penn State experience may look somewhat different this fall, but I am very much looking forward to seeing our campuses busy with students, faculty and staff once again,” President Eric J. Barron said on the university’s website.

Penn State will launch a comprehensive coronavirus and contact-tracing program. Campus health officials will screen symptomatic individuals as well as asymptomatic individuals who are identified in the contact-tracing process.


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The university will hire additional staff to work as contact tracers to better detect cases and help prevent future outbreaks. ​Officials also say they will be able to quarantine and provide medical care for individuals who fall ill.

Campus working groups are also reviewing how to reconfigure all of the university’s more than 1,700 classrooms, seminar rooms and labs for social distancing. The groups will also repurpose some non-classroom for instruction.

Officials are also prepping additional measures—such as assigned seating and monitoring of attendance to help facilitate contact tracing—if they become necessary. Plexiglass shields will be installed in areas where person-to-person contact is most likely to occur.

Flexibility in reopening

Classes of more than 250 students will continue to be delivered online, while other courses will be a blend of remote and in-person instruction. Most online classes will be scheduled to occur synchronously.

Administrators have also asked faculty to be flexible in managing attendance so sick students—or those with underlying medical conditions—can stay home.

Because Pennsylvania is managing the pandemic county-by-county, operations may vary at each Penn State campus. Administrators also developing plans to quickly adjust course delivery should an severe outbreak occur in the fall.

“If the country, the commonwealth or a county home to one of our campuses were to see a serious resurgence of COVID-19 and we would need to alter the learning format, Penn State has the ability to transition rapidly as our entire model is built on flexibility,” said Barron.

Ultimately, the university is emphasizing personal responsibility in its plans to reopen.

“The importance of each individual’s behavior in stopping the spread of coronavirus cannot be overstated,” associate professor of biology Matt Ferrari said on the university’s website “There are a few key elements: Wear personal protective equipment or, for most of our community, face masks; maintain social and physical distancing of at least six feet from other individuals; and wash your hands frequently with soap and water.”

Read Penn State’s full reopening plan here