Penn State classes start this week, and as the campus with the largest student body in Pennsylvania kicks off the fall semester, many in State College are concerned that the arrival of tens of thousands of students could mean outbreaks of COVID-19.
As reports of other universities delaying in-person classes or switching to remote learning after COVID-19 outbreaks fill the news, some in the community think Penn State should have scrapped or postponed in-person learning. While many of the classes will be online, students have been arriving back in town — moving into their dorms and apartments.
Jesse Barlow, president of State College borough council, said concerns about students’ return is the only topic he’s been hearing about.
“I’ve been hearing it from people who aren’t normally anxious about things," Barlow said. "I think their concern is there might be an outbreak when [students] arrive.”
That anxiety increased last week when a large crowd of students gathered outside an on-campus dorm, breaking the university's social distancing and masking rules.
Barlow and others said Penn State has taken a lot of good measures. But, they also said the university hasn’t always been transparent about its decisions.
“They made their plans and basically told us about it, and we’re a little bit feeling that we were just sort of told to cope with it," said Barlow, saying he was speaking only for himself.
The numbers of COVID-19 cases in the State College area and Centre County have been relatively low and stable.
Penn State has been taking steps to prevent an outbreak and to manage cases that do happen. It has strict masking requirements for students on campus. It rolled out an online dashboard that has aggregate testing results for students and employees.
The university targeted about 24,000 students for pre-arrival COVID testing. Students who were contacted were required to take the test and test negative before returning to campus.
According to the university, only about 17,000 students completed those tests. Results are pending on about 5,000 of those. A message from Provost Nick Jones to faculty says that compliance was strong among students living on-campus, where it was required to gain access.
"However, at University Park we still have a number of students living off campus who are non-compliant and have not initiated this required testing," the message says, going on to describe the steps being taken, including initiating the Student Conduct process. That includes "potential repercussions up to and including expulsion from Penn State."
A university announcement says if students selected for pre-arrival testing haven’t completed it by Friday their registration could be canceled. The university also plans to have random testing during the semester.
But Sarah Townsend, a founder of the Coalition for a Just University at Penn State, doesn’t think that’s enough. She and others are calling for more frequent widespread testing. They also want to see the research and numbers that went into developing the university's plan.
"We hope they’re doing data modeling of their own. We hope they have scientific evidence that they’re using to develop their plans. But if they do, they haven’t shared any of it," Townsend said. "So, I guess my response is show us your science."
Resident Carla Myers thinks the Penn State students should not be returning to campus at all.
“We already know from watching other universities open that it doesn’t work," Myers said. "I’m not quite sure how much more information we need. But it doesn’t work other places, why would it magically work here?”
She’s particularly concerned about what an increase in cases could mean for K through 12 schools. Classes in the State College Area School District start this week — a topic so contentious it led to a school board meeting that lasted more than six hours. Families can choose in-person or remote learning or a virtual academy.
Michelle Rodino-Colocino is on the faculty at Penn State and president of the University Park-Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which represents faculty at all campuses. She’s also a parent. She would have liked to have seen Penn State move most classes and operations online.
“If Penn State had done that, I would have felt many degrees safer about the school district opening," Rodino-Colocino said.
She said the plans the school district and Penn State developed should be used — once the pandemic is under control.
“We need to really take the step that’s going to make the most difference in stopping this pandemic as quickly as we can so that we can have a reopening plan like the one outlined by Penn State," she said.
Kevin Black, interim dean of the Penn State College of Medicine, said he understands the concerns of local residents.
“If the strategy of the university needs to change or there need to be mitigation efforts ranging from going online for all classes to sending people home, I’m very, very confident that the leadership of the university will do whatever is necessary to protect the students and the faculty and the staff and the community surrounding the university," Black said.
He says hundreds of hours went into modeling different scenarios and incorporating the latest data.
Penn State is starting random COVID-19 testing of at least 1% of students, faculty and staff across the university, with the possibility of increasing that number.
Dawn Maguire, president of the Holmes Foster Neighborhood Association, a tree-lined area walking distance to downtown and campus, says she doesn't want to see students become scapegoats.
“The return of the fall semester is always an exciting time here. The energy level picks up. So I’m definitely looking forward to having that come back, for sure," Maguire said.
Maguire said while it’s easy to focus on what should have been done, she is focusing on what can be done now. For the association, that means making sure students in the neighborhood understand the borough’s rules on mask-wearing and social distancing.
“Holmes Foster is an awesome neighborhood to live in," she said. "Students make that even better. But, they also have to be aware of what the guidelines are and follow those rules to stay safe and keep everybody healthy.”
Carrie Jackson is secretary of the Holmes Foster Neighborhood Association and lives across the street from Maguire. She’s glad to welcome the students back. But she would also like to see more transparency at all levels, including government and the university.
“If something doesn’t go according to plan, I think we can all understand that that’s the new norm. Just be open about it, be transparent," Jackson said. "Say so, and say what you’re going to do as a result.”
Correction: The final quote was originally misattributed in the text version of this story. The on-air version was correct.