We have always been proud to be a part of public higher education. We believe in its enduring mission, its power to change lives, lift up communities, drive economic development, and strengthen our civil and political societies. And we are in awe of the faculty and staff of this State System who live as we do, to serve.
But we have never been prouder than these last few months. Our universities have demonstrated tremendous agility and resilience in pursuing our mission in the most challenging contexts. In a matter of weeks – in some cases days – our universities fundamentally changed every aspect of their operating models so our students could continue progress towards their degrees in the midst of a global pandemic. Additionally, and in countless ways, our universities provided direct support to people in their communities who were suffering as a result of the pandemic. These have included offering beds to the sick; contributing PPE and food and clothing to those who needed it; offering internet access to members of the public who found themselves teleworking in regions without reliable broad band access; devoting faculty expertise, labs, and science facilities to a variety of causes entailed in fighting the novel coronavirus.
That ingenuity, that resilience, that unbridled commitment to mission continues as we plan to re-engage in face-to-face instruction. In the days and weeks ahead, you will be hearing from the universities about their plans for doing this. With this post we want to give some insight into what to expect. Just as importantly, we want to acknowledge the enormous – no, heroic – efforts made by countless staff and faculty across our system – across this industry – who, in pulling together their plans for fall, immersed themselves in a rapidly evolving global dialogue about how to mitigate health and safety risks with a novel and not fully understood virus. These heroes – our heroes, are applying what they've learned to their university's unique local circumstances and are developing plans for re-engaging face-to-face instruction that work best for their students, faculty, staff, and local communities.
What you can expect this fall
You can expect our universities to take a common approach to mitigating health and safety risks.
In the most basic sense that approach entails impeding the spread of a virus that is believed to be transmitted primarily through the air, and, under certain circumstances through surface contact. Guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control
and by the Pennsylvania Department of Education
speak in a variety of ways about how colleges and universities can achieve this objective. They recommend, among other things:
- Ways to keep people at a safe distance from one another.
- Ways to mitigate the risk of infection; for example, by wearing masks, regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, using PPE and/or plexiglass barriers for people engaged in routine close contact (such as are now commonly seen at grocery store cashier windows).
- Changing instructional and work schedules and relying on remote work more extensively to minimized the number of people on campus at any one time.
- Protocols having to do with identifying and isolating people who have contracted the disease or have had close contact with someone who has, and to putting plans in place should community spread of the virus reach a point where face-to-face engagement is no longer viable and operations go entirely remote, as happened in March.
There is obviously a great deal more to it than that, but we go this far into the guidelines to make a simple, but important point. Universities and colleges are not designed to keep people apart. They are designed to bring people together, closely, in classrooms, labs, libraries, and study lounges; in dining and resident halls; on sports teams, in performances and in countless other student activities both on and off campus.
As a result, every one of our universities has redesigned its basic operating practices to integrate the guidelines referenced above.
Our universities' plans share another important aspect. They rely on a compact between the university and its students, employees, and visitors. Each party has a role to play in mitigating health risks of the entire community. During this pandemic, every one of us shares responsibility for securing the public's health. We are responsible to one another for mitigating risk of community spread. Accordingly, our students, faculty, staff, and visitors will expect our universities to take steps outlined in their plans including those referenced above.
Universities, in turn will expect students, faculty, staff and visitors to behave in ways that protect each other, such as maintaining social distancing wherever possible, wearing masks, washing hands and/or use hand sanitizer frequently, abiding by regulated traffic flow patterns, staying at home or in residences when sick, and isolating if tested positive for COVID-19.
Implementing this compact will require our universities to communicate effectively with their local constituencies about expectations, their rationale and importance, and to provide education and training where necessary. And it will require all of us to hold one another accountable for doing our respective parts – in the interest of the community and for the benefit of one another.You can expect to find significant differences in how our universities are implementing this common approach.
Universities in this System, like communities in this commonwealth, are very different. They serve students from different parts of the state and world; are located in areas experiencing the pandemic's impacts in different ways; have facilities of different design, size, and capacity; and have access to health care services with different capabilities.
These differences reveal themselves in how our universities are choosing to implement guidelines as they re-engage in face-to-face instruction this fall. Here are some examples. All universities are working to enable social distancing in the classroom. How they achieve that objective differs considerably: integrating remote and face-to-face instructional delivery models in different ways, inviting only selected groups back to campus, adjusting course and term scheduling to spread out student “traffic." Approaches to student room and board will also vary in ways that reflect the number of students who are expected to be on campus at any one time, the capacity and layout of available facilities, and a host of other factors.
Such variations are essential to re-engaging face-to-face instruction across the State System. It is a tremendous strength because it enables all to re-engage in ways that satisfy local needs and circumstances.
But it also means that the experience of students, faculty, and staff at any one university will differ from experience of their counterparts at others. Again, here are examples. Some universities are equipped with facilities that enable them to conduct large, in-person lecture courses while enabling social distancing. Others may need to move large lecture courses entirely online or adopt hybrid models. This means the experience that students and faculty have of large classes – including comparable lecture classes (think intro psychology) – will differ from one university to the next. The same will be true in non-instructional areas where universities will integrate the use of PPE, remote work, altered work schedules, and other tools in different combinations to achieve the same objectives – mitigating health and safety. Accordingly, we should expect that from one campus to the next, transactions involving the registrar's office or career services, or student life, to name a few examples, will look and feel different for students and employees involved in them.