#childsafety | University leaders answer employee questions ahead of return to work, campus

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State President Eric Barron and University leaders hosted a virtual Town Hall event today (June 22) to answer questions from faculty and staff regarding Penn State’s announcement on the return to work and plans to hold in-person classes this fall.

More than 1,000 questions were submitted by faculty and staff ahead of the virtual Town Hall, which will be archived and available for viewing soon at https://LiveEvents.psu.edu/. 

Joining Barron for the hour-long event were:

  • Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost;
  • Lorraine Goffe, vice president for human resources and co-chair of the Return to Work task force;
  • Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs and co-chair of the Return to Campus and Community task force; and
  • Matt Ferrari, associate professor of biology, researcher in the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and co-chair of the Public Health and Science Assessment task force.

Following the faculty and staff Town Hall, Barron and the panelists hosted a second virtual event to address questions from students and families.

In opening the faculty and staff Town Hall, Barron acknowledged the many challenges the coronavirus has posed to the University community, and the toll the outbreak has taken on individuals and families. “We know these last few months have not been easy, personally or professionally, and you rose to the occasion transitioning to remote teaching this spring, and I am proud of your extraordinary efforts to continue to deliver world-class learning experiences and educational outcomes,” he said. “This has been an exceptionally difficult time, and the University has and will continue to work toward keeping employees supported during this difficult time.”

Barron provided an update on the University’s plan for employees who have been furloughed since the end of April. The president announced that Penn State will continue to pay furloughed employees 50% of their salaries and benefits through July 31, anticipating that most furloughed employees will return to work in August. Barron continued stating that the Nittany Lion Inn at the University Park campus will remain closed at this time, so that it may be utilized as an isolation space at least through the fall semester. The closure of the Nittany Lion Inn will result in layoffs of up to 79 employees.

“The financial and other impacts of this pandemic are forcing us to make many hard decisions, and this one was very difficult because it affects our dedicated employees. Extremely challenging financial conditions and the need for isolation space ultimately compelled us to make this difficult decision,” he said.

Much of the town hall event focused on questions surrounding the measures, policies and procedures that Penn State is putting into place to meet or exceed the governor’s guidance on returning to work and resumption of residential classes in the fall.

Barron said Penn State is taking a multi-layered approach to promoting health and safety at all of its locations. “It’s an extraordinarily broad set of activities, from purchasing masks for employees, students and our campus visitors, to having hand sanitizing stations at the entrance of buildings and classrooms to policies on required masking and social distancing to limiting the size of classrooms to designing classrooms that allow for social distancing to ensuring that we have flexible mechanisms for delivery and flexibility to change,” he said.

Jones added, “These measures are all part of a layered approach in an attempt to enhance the safety of our faculty and staff.”

Ferrari said the University will employ strategies for effective detection and management at all campuses. “The main pillars of our approach are prevention — which are the things you’re going to see every day like masks and sanitation — and testing.” He said Penn State will be aggressively monitoring and have systems in place to respond if the University sees an increase in cases.

“That’s what’s going to allow us to have that nimble response that will handle the day-to-day if everything is going well, and give us the capacity to respond if we do start to see outbreaks,” Ferrari said.

Jones said plans also take into account considerations and needs of Penn State’s locations throughout the state. “All of our campuses are different and unique in their own ways. Our response to this must provide campuses with that common support that we see across all locations, but also be tailored to the unique needs of particular locations. For example, at a very basic level, some of our campuses are very residentially oriented and others are almost wholly commuter campuses, and so clearly the way we approach each will be different. The University guidelines that we’re developing will help leaders at each campus implement the policies that best protect and serve their individual communities, aligned, of course, with the governor’s plan for Pennsylvania.” 

Barron reiterated that individuals hold a measure of responsibility for helping to minimize the spread of the coronavirus and keep their campus and local communities safe.

“Let me be clear — students, employees and visitors are required to wear face masks in classrooms, labs and offices — and we will hold individuals accountable,” he said. “Our expectations of course are also that individuals will wear masks on campus, and in the community, as well as follow other guidelines for distancing and hand washing, for example.”

Sims acknowledged faculty concerns with students’ compliance with the directive to wear masks in the classroom. 

“Faculty members have long had considerable influence in what’s happening in the classrooms, either through informal means such as conversations with students to remind them of what the expectations are about masking and to encourage students to comply with those expectations, but they also have grading policies. Some faculty members have participation grades to go along with the rest of their grading. They should utilize those to influence grading behavior,” he said. When students fail to comply, Sims said faculty members can refer them to the student conduct process.

Goffe said the University has and will continue to listen to employees concerns over the phased return to the workplace. “We are doing all we can to create as safe an environment as possible — it’s top of mind for us.”

The panelists also addressed a range of other topics during the virtual Town Hall:

  • Fall sports: Barron said the recent return of football players to campus is a health and safety step. “If there is any chance they are playing, they need to be physically fit so they are not harmed when then enter the field of play,” he said. Barron stated that the safety of players, personnel and the community is the main priority, and that numerous scenarios are under discussion.
  • Labor Day classes and Thanksgiving break: Goffe said individual units will determine whether employees will be required to work on Labor Day. She said employees who work on Labor Day will be compensated based on University policies or the appropriate collective bargaining agreement. Goffe added that there are no changes to Penn State’s holiday schedule and the University will continue to observe staff holidays as set in Penn State policy and respective bargaining agreements.
  • Employee travel: Jones said the University is still restricting travel, but beginning on July 1, requests for domestic travel exceptions will be approved by unit executives, including deans and chancellors, to reflect the needs of faculty and staff in those units. All international travel requests will still need to be approved by the provost’s office.
  • Return to research: Jones said the phased approach to return to research has make strong progress. The provost said research that can be done remotely should continue to do so for the time being, and research that must be conducted in person should be done with the health and well-being of the researchers in mind.
  • Child care: Goffe said Penn State is planning to reopen on-campus child care centers, consistent with all state and public health guidelines, and will provide more information in the coming weeks. She added that given the uncertainties in different parts of the state, as well as individual circumstances, the University is asking supervisors to be flexible in working with employees who find themselves without child care.
  • Hiring: Given Penn State’s current financial circumstances, Barron said most hiring is still on hold however if you have a critical request, groups should reach out to the provost’s office.

University leaders acknowledged that not all questions were answered at the virtual Town Hall event, and that the 16 task groups are continuing to work diligently and are collaborating closely with Faculty Senate and Academic Leadership Council on return to work and return to campus.

Penn State will be sharing more information as it become available and plans to provide answers to questions that were not addressed during the Town Hall.

Barron concluded the event, saying, “I’m really gaining confidence in how thoughtful the University has been in developing advice and plans to move forward. It’s not something you can just reveal all at once. It comes in phases as we watch things evolve, but I have to say personally — although people view my age as somewhat being at risk — that as I watch the policy on masking, social distancing, etc., and as I look at the thoughtful plans for testing and tracing evolve, that I’m personally looking forward to meeting my class in the fall face to face because I have growing confidence that this is a University that is being very thoughtful about your health and safety.” 

Faculty and staff who viewed the event are encouraged to fill out this survey: https://pennstate.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bCxaLFbKcGoZ0iN.

Since the start of the pandemic, Penn State leaders have hosted a number of town hall events, including a pair of virtual town halls for students and faculty and staff on March 24, and a follow-up event on May 19. Virtual town halls were also hosted by the Graduate School and Office of Global Programs.

Penn State leaders have hosted Town Hall meetings since 2015 to provide members of the University community opportunities to receive updates on Penn State initiatives, hear from administrative leaders about key issues, ask questions and provide feedback.

Updated information on Penn State’s response to the coronavirus can be found at https://virusinfo.psu.edu/, including frequently asked questions about employee impacts, classes and academics for faculty and instructors, campuses and facilities, resources and support, and other topics.




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