As more and more of the country gets vaccinated against coronavirus, many Penn Staters are feeling hopeful about the upcoming in-person school year. Others point to the current upswing in COVID cases and say it’s too soon.
Eduardo Mendieta isn’t sure August is the right time for Penn State to go back to in-person learning. The philosophy professor chose to teach in-person this semester after teaching online in the fall. He says Zoom classes went well enough, but he missed getting the chance to be with students. Now that he’s back in the classroom, though, half of his students have opted to stay online.
“I can tell that a lot of students would really rather be on Zoom, because they don't feel safe. Some of them are sick, some of them got COVID," Mendieta said.
The university made the decision in February to go back to in-person classes for the fall. Mendieta said faculty and staff were not given a say in the decision. He says students were not asked either.
“The university really hasn't engaged in an evaluation and assessment of the impact. We don't know what our students are thinking in terms of what they're finding most instructive, motivational, inspirational. They're confused," Mendiata said.
Freshman Arushi Grover said she feels safe in her in-person classes. But with a rising number of cases, Grover worries about the fall. She’s concerned about her more vulnerable classmates only having the in-person option.
“I'm not sure that the nation will be at 100% by the fall — and that choice might not help or be safe for everybody," Grover said.
Grover is still excited for the fall, though. She hopes she’ll finally get to experience regular college life.
“I am a little bit excited to get back, especially to have like a normal second freshman year, kind of. I don't think I would get to know how much I was impacted until we get back in and see what a normal year is meant to be," Grover said.
For students starting Penn State in the fall, like Rachel Newnam, the university’s decision to be in person was even more of a pull. Newnam said she’s adjusted to online classes after a year of mostly remote learning at her high school in Delaware County. But she’s been waiting her whole life to be a part of a Penn State football game as a student.
“Thinking about the atmosphere, Penn State football, being in Beaver Stadium for the White Out or just even a regular football game, the energy that's there has made me so excited, and definitely something that I was really, really looking forward to when I chose Penn State," Newnam said.
Vaccine rollout could be the key to a safer return in the fall. Newnam believes the growing number of vaccinated people will help many feel safer going back in the classroom.
“Things will start to roll back into a sense of normalcy, even if it's slowly, but I think that for freshmen being just being on campus and being able to kind of go back even if we don't get football games, but we get fall in person classes, it's a little bit of a give and take," Newnam said.
State College Borough Council President Jesse Barlow is also counting on vaccines to make the return to in-person classes safer. He believes many students and professors will voluntarily get vaccinated in the coming months.
But Barlow said the university should consider making COVID-19 vaccinations a requirement for students coming back to campus.
“I think we could have some problems, but if the student body is all vaccinated I think we'll be in good shape," Barlow said.
Rutgers University announced last week that it will require students to get COVID-19 vaccines to attend the fall semester. Penn State President Eric Barron told WPSU the university isn’t making vaccination a requirement for students at this time, in part because current vaccine options lack full FDA approval.
Barlow said many students have complied with the borough’s masking and gathering ordinance, but residents are still concerned about the spread. With cases rising, he said the borough may extend the ordinance into the fall.
“That's something we're going to have to think about. I don't know how much we're going to be willing to relax restrictions. I think we should evaluate where the data is on cases before deciding whether to extend the ordinance or not. It's too early to tell," Barlow said.
Mendieta believes the university should continue more rigorous COVID testing. But he said the top priority should be collaborating more with the Penn State and State College community before the fall semester begins.
“We, the faculty, are the ones that are in charge of developing the curriculum. We are the ones that do the research, we are the ones that do the mentoring, but we have no say on the everyday running of the university," Mendieta said.
Penn State will begin its phased return of in-person classes this summer.