Penn State plans to resume in-person classes in the fall, but is preparing to adjust if circumstances don’t allow it, a university spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, a spokesman for the 14-college Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said the system expects to announce whether in-class instruction will take place by the end of June.
Colleges across the country are struggling to determine whether they will be able to safely resume in-person classes in the fall, even as the spring semester quietly comes to close with campuses empty and students studying remotely.
Officials in California announced Tuesday that the 23 public universities in that state won’t reopen for in-person classes in the fall as officials in that state seek to contain the spread of coronavirus.
University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said on May 1 that university officials will notify families by early July whether there will be in-person classes in the fall.
"Throughout the summer, we will continue to adjust and fine-tune our plans and update our communication to reflect the latest information and current status of the pandemic," he said.
Juniata College in Huntingdon announced Wednesday that all faculty and students will be tested for coronavirus before the start of the fall semester as that private college tries to prepare to resume in-person classes.
California has confirmed about 70,000 cases of coronavirus, compared to 58,000 in Pennsylvania. But with 40 million residents, California has more than three times as many people as Pennsylvania.
Penn State officials are scheduled to give an update on their plan for the fall on June 15, said Lisa Powers, a university spokeswoman.
Penn State is also considering whether it makes sense to allow some campuses to resume activities while keeping classes online at others, she said.
“Because of Penn State’s structure with 24 locations, we know that how employees return to work or students return to campus may differ from campus-to-campus -- since some campuses may open earlier than others in relation to Gov. Wolf’s plan to reopen the Commonwealth,” Powers said. “We have several action groups working through a variety of scenarios and possibilities, all based on public health guidance, as well as our mission to provide an excellent education to our students.”
It’s unclear whether the State System of Higher Education will make a system-wide move to reopen or whether individual universities will be allowed to determine whether to reopen.
“At both the system level and at the individual universities, we’re all looking hard at what’s possible for the fall semester. It’s an ongoing, collaborative process. We have a lot work ahead and nothing right now is final,” said David Pidgeon, a PASSHE spokesman. “Ultimately, we all have to be guided by what’s best in terms of safety for the entire campus community — students, faculty, staff, and administration. And we also want to ensure an affordable, quality education can be delivered because, whether in-person or through remote modalities, that’s the mission and the pandemic has not changed that.”
State Rep. Brad Roae, whose district includes central Crawford County and is a member of the PASSHE board of trustees, said he hopes each college will get to decide whether to open or not.
“In parts of the state with very few cases of COVID-19 I think it is likely that they would opt for in-person classes,” he said.
Gov. Tom Wolf has not announced how the state will determine when counties move into the state’s “green phase” in which social-distancing restrictions are lifted, he noted.
“Recessions usually help enrollment,” Roae said. “When people are out of work and their old job may not be available again and they have been thinking about going to college they see it as a good time to do it. More people usually qualify for government funding to help with the costs during recessions.”
Jamie Martin, chair of the Criminology Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and incoming president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty, said that it’s too soon to say whether the state’s universities will be safely able to reopen for in-person classes.
“The best option is for faculty and students to be in the same space,” she said.
But the threat of spreading coronavirus could make that option unworkable, she said.
At IUP, there are classes of 35 students scheduled for the fall in classrooms that can only accommodate up to 40 students, she said.
“There is no way to socially distance” in a classroom like that, Martin said. She added that if a student makes an office visit with a professor, it’s unlikely that they would have enough room to keep six feet between them.
“When parents send their children to us, they expect us to keep them safe,” Martin said.
And while online classes are less than ideal, faculty members were able to quickly adjust to teaching students remotely when colleges closed, she said.
With more time to plan, they would be able to use technology to engage with students more effectively, Martin said.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.