With 90 cases of coronavirus reported there, Bloomsburg University will revert to largely remote instruction beginning Monday, the school announced.
The change comes less than two weeks into the semester, following concerns about students attending off campus parties, including a large gathering last Friday. All but one of the virus cases are among students, most of whom live off campus.
Bloomsburg, one of 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, had been conducting about a quarter of its classes in person, some in a blended format, and more than half online.
Nearly 2,200 students living on the central Pennsylvania campus will have the option of remaining, said Daniel Greenstein, the system’s chancellor. Many of the university’s 8,600 students live in the surrounding community or are studying remotely.
“If you look at the curve of the infection rate, it’s growing,” Greenstein said Thursday morning. “I’m glad their planning is enabling them to pivot quickly. My hope is that they will do it even more effectively than they did in March and that students’ progress toward their degree will be minimally disrupted.”
Of all the schools that have reopened in Pennsylvania, Bloomsburg appears to have the highest case count, though it has been open longer than some others. Students began arriving Aug. 9 and classes started Aug. 17.
Around the country, some colleges that opened earlier and have seen soaring case counts also have reversed course. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved classes online after one week and now has nearly 1,000 cases. The University of Notre Dame announced classes would be held online for two weeks after case counts climbed there; the university now has nearly 500 cases. The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa has had more than 500 cases.
Nationwide, college campuses have recorded at least 26,000 cases, according to the New York Times.
Villanova University has 10 cases among students, seven of them on campus, while Pennsylvania State University has reported three cases so far.
Reopening approaches have varied widely among state universities. Some, including West Chester, East Stroudsburg, Clarion, and California started with all or largely remote instruction, Greenstein said. Others, like Shippensburg and Millersville, have few students living on campus, he said. A few, like Bloomsburg, have gone with more in-person classes. At Cheyney, which returned a couple weeks ago, only 30% of classes are being conducted remotely, said Dave Pidgeon, a system spokesperson. Greenstein said he wasn’t aware of any cases being reported there.
Several other state universities have reported a few cases. Lock Haven has had four, and Indiana and Slippery Rock have reported their first cases, Greenstein said.
Bloomsburg divided its semester into three sections, two running seven weeks and one running the full semester, to decrease the density of students on campus and the number of classes students had to take at one time, Greenstein said. But virus counts climbed anyway.
Dozens of off-campus parties have ensued since students returned, according to the Bloomsburg Press Enterprise, including a fraternity party that drew 80 people over the weekend.
Bloomsburg president Bashar W. Hanna this week issued a stern reprimand to students who attended the party, and said they would face disciplinary action and fines or citations from local police.
“The actions of these few put all of you in jeopardy,” Hanna said.
The university classes currently in progress — those in the first seven-week period and those running the full semester — will be conducted remotely. A decision on the second seven-week period will be made next month.
Eric Hawrelak, interim president of the faculty union and an associate professor of chemistry, said faculty had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the rising case count and were happy to see the university change course.
“We’re concerned about ourselves getting sick, our families getting sick and our students getting sick,” he said.
Bloomsburg’s reopening plan drew criticism from some parents, faculty and community members, who worried that it would put the campus community and town at risk.
“We don’t want to be an experiment for the sake of their revenue stream,” said Wendy Lynne Lee, a philosophy professor who has been publicly critical of Bloomsburg’s plan for weeks. “It’s not what anybody signed up for.”
She said the school should have started the semester with all-remote instruction, and while she is pleased that Bloomsburg has pivoted, she’s worried it’s too late. She said it also would have helped if the school had tested students before arrival, like many other universities have done.
State system schools did not require that students be tested.
“There is a high degree of discomfort with mandated testing,” Greenstein said, describing it as a “legal issue” for state universities. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not recommend entry testing.
Greenstein said he expects many students will leave university housing and return home once instruction moves to remote. The university is allowing students to stay, realizing that some come from areas without good internet access or the support they need. All students are living in single rooms.
Students who leave will be reimbursed for the remainder of their room and board, the university said.
On social media, some Bloomsburg parents reacted with frustration, resignation, and disappointment — and questions about what comes next. Would their students have to move home by early September to qualify for meal-and-housing refunds, only to move back to campus later if pandemic conditions improve? And for those who recently moved into off-campus apartments, whether they stay or go, they likely will be stuck paying rent to take virtual classes they could attend from home.
The move to remote instruction has its cost, Greenstein said. Not all students do as well taking classes online and it may mean some employees will have to be furloughed, he said.
“Those furloughs likely will focus on our service staff, who are not our best-paid employees,” he said. “The differential impacts of this are hard.”