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Many Penn State Students Have Returned To State College, Even Though Classes Are Still Remote

Penn State senior and pre-med student Avinash Saraiya, unpacks his suitcase as he moves into his new apartment in downtown State College.
Michael Miller

Worsening COVID-19 conditions at the end of last year led Penn State to move all spring semester classes online until Feb. 15. The university also discouraged all students – living both on and off campus – from returning to State College until then. But many students have already returned to Centre County. 

Avinash Saraiya is a pre-med student at Penn State. He moved in to his off-campus apartment in mid-January. He said being in Centre County makes him feel connected to the university even during the pandemic.

“Coming back to State College this semester was really for the experience of being in close proximity to Penn State and the community here,” Saraiya said. 

He also said he was paying rent anyway and didn’t want to put the money to waste.

“Otherwise it would be kind of a bit of a money pit. So it made the most sense to come back when the lease started and to spend what would be the duration of the entire semester of class in State College,” Saraiya said. 

Sophomore criminology and English major Phoebe Cykosky needed to be on campus at the start of the semester for her job.

“I actually manage the men’s varsity tennis team so I was able to apply for a remote period housing contract through one of the Penn State’s eLiving contract sites,” Cykosky said.

Penn State is requiring all students to get a COVID-19 test before they return, and requires students living in the dorms to be tested weekly. Cykosky said it’s quiet on campus, but many off-campus students have returned. She said downtown and the night life is starting to look similar to the fall semester. 

“People downtown are still doing things and going to bars and that scene is kind of the same from what I see,” Cykosky said. 

COVID-19 positives are already trending up at Penn State in recent days. Since the end of last semester, nearly 500 University Park students have tested positive on campus. Half of those were in the last week.

Although Penn State has not started in-person classes, the HUB Robeson Center and some regular classrooms on campus are open for students who have returned early. Maria Weck is a senior who works at the information desk in the HUB. She said she came back for her job, but also because she likes being at Penn State.

Weck said she sees many students returning to campus early this spring but expected to see more of them using the HUB while taking remote classes.  

She thinks that might be because of the mask requirement on campus.

“I wouldn’t want to sit and do work with a mask on for like four hours. Students don’t just study for 30 minutes, we’re there for a while,” Weck said. 

Weck agrees with the mask requirements and believes students are trying to do their part while on campus. But she said Penn State could do a better job of communicating with students about COVID-19 resources on campus.

“There have been times where I’m like, ‘Oh, I need to look up where this testing site is or where I might be able to get in-person testing’ and it feels like I’m searching for 20 minutes. It shouldn’t be this difficult to find,” Weck said. 

With students already returning to campus and another wave of students coming on Feb. 15, Weck said university testing sites and requirements should be “blasted all the time” through text, email and even social media.  

“I think on their Instagram they should post [testing information] more because sometimes it’s just about wearing a mask, and I know to wear a mask. I’m being told that all the time,” Weck said.

Penn State outlined return to campus testing requirements for students at the beginning of the semester. The university also sent out reminders on social media. More than 8,000 University Park students have submitted their results so far. Two-hundred of those students tested positive. 

Students within 20 miles of campus must have a negative test result on file with the university to participate in Penn State classes and activities. Results should be submitted within 72 hours of returning to campus.

Weck has sent in her COVID test, but Saraiya is still waiting for his to arrive. 

Weck said she’ll do her part, but she thinks the delay of in-person classes has just put off an inevitable surge in COVID-19 cases. 

“If Penn State didn’t want students to come back, they wouldn’t have had in-person classes again,” Weck said.

Students who aren’t already in town are scheduled to return for in-person classes in just over a week.    

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