Nearly 60 Pennsylvania State University football players will begin practicing on campus Monday for a football season they’re not sure they will have.

They were among the first students to return to campus since it was shut down in mid-March amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Whether they will have a football season is still under discussion by presidents in the Big Ten and the NCAA, said Penn State president Eric Barron. But if they do, players must be physically ready, he said.

It’s the beginning of a return to a new normal for the state’s flagship university. Over the last three months, about 300 people on 16 task forces have been planning for the safe return of more than 110,00 students and employees on the university’s campuses across the state. Many will be traveling from distant locations. The issues are many and similar to those that universities throughout the country have been grappling with: How to detect and handle an outbreak? How to conduct classes safely? Can the university count on college students to socially distance?

Penn State’s plan reflects many of the same steps that colleges regionally and nationally are taking. That includes intensive cleaning, a hybrid of online and in-person classes and a modified calendar that calls for in-person classes to conclude before Thanksgiving and the rest of the semester to be conducted remotely. And like most schools, Penn State is poised to pivot if the virus takes a turn.

“One of the only certainties we have about this virus is that this story is going to continue to change,” said Matthew Ferrari, a Penn State associate professor and infectious disease expert who helped with the planning.

Much will depend on government and health guidelines. Centre County, home to Penn State’s University Park campus, moved into Pennsylvania’s least restrictive green phase last month.

Barron and a half-dozen other top university administrators during interviews Friday discussed their plan, released to the campus Sunday night. It includes extensive virus testing, the purchase of a half million masks and the creation of more classroom space to allow for social distancing.

The preparations come with a price tag and revenue is estimated to be down about $140 million, with additional losses projected for athletics and auxiliary units, including the hotels. Barron said he expects to ask trustees later this month for approval to borrow as much as $250 million, if needed.

In the Classroom

Well more than half of Penn State classes are expected to be held in-person, said provost Nicholas Jones. Still, Penn State expects that some students may be unable or unwilling to attend in person, either because they have underlying conditions, are in quarantine or, in the case of hundreds of international students, are unable to get into the country. Faculty concerns also are a consideration: 14% said they were unwilling to return to face-to-face teaching, according to survey results released by Penn State last week.

Penn State president Eric J. Barron.
Penn State president Eric J. Barron.

Classrooms are being equipped with technology to allow professors to teach in-person and remotely simultaneously, Jones said. Classes with more than 250 students will be conducted remotely.

The university will encourage professors to meet with students for class at a specific time, as opposed to providing prerecorded lectures. That model creates a sense of community, Barron said, which yielded better student performance during the spring.

A party scene?

The university can’t stop off-campus parties at fraternity houses and apartment buildings, long a part of Penn State’s social life, said Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs. Half the students who belong to fraternities and responded to a university survey said they expect their houses will hold parties, while 42% of overall student respondents said they planned to attend.

But the university will encourage students to social distance and wear masks, Sims said. The school also will work with student leaders and borough officials to encourage compliance, and will flag violations of university regulations, he said.

“We are going to have to rely on individual personal responsibility heavily,” Sims said. “We can’t monitor and police everybody.”

Damon Sims, Penn State University vice president of student Affairs.
File photo
Damon Sims, Penn State University vice president of student Affairs.

On campus, students will be required to wear masks and isolate if they are exposed. More than two-thirds of nearly 6,000 student survey respondents said they would follow rules to have an on-campus experience.

The university may resort to discipline in cases of blatant disregard for rules that puts others at risk, Sims said.

In residence halls, no more than two students can share a room. Students can request singles. Many of the 1,100 student organizations will have to limit in-person meetings, Sims said. The university may even alter how it conducts career fairs.

But Penn State doesn’t want to add so many restrictions that campus life is unrecognizable.

“We’ve got to find a balance between sort of controlling in an absolute way the virus and allowing students to have an experience that you would expect to have" on campus, Sims said.

A packed Beaver Stadium?

Don’t expect things to be the same if Beaver Stadium opens to fans for football.

“There’s a great deal of discussion about everything from touchless ticketing, social distancing in lines and reduced numbers of individuals in the stadium,” Barron said. “But so far, there are not decisions.”

Penn State is in discussion with other Big Ten schools about sports protocols. For now, fall athletes are beginning to return to campus.

Football players, who came back last week, were tested for the virus, and only 16 can train together at one time, Barron said. In other sports, groups of 10 will train together.

Some non-athletes will return to campus for the second summer session in July. More employees, too, will begin to return. About 5,000 of the system’s 37,000 full and part-time employees (not counting the health system, Penn College of Technology or world campus) currently are working on site, said Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources. But those who can work remotely will be encouraged to continue, she said.

The university will add hand sanitizer stations, increase cleaning, install plexiglass shields and put up one-way traffic signs in high density areas.

Testing and tracing

The university will test symptomatic individuals, isolate those who test positive, and begin contact tracing to pinpoint others exposed. The process is not foreign to Penn State, which has a large health system and medical experts. The school has dealt with outbreaks of mumps and other diseases.

“It’s an issue of scaling that up,” Ferrari, the infectious disease expert, said.

The university will test those who had exposure to a COVID patient and conduct spot testing of others, he said. That will help the university understand the virus’ prevalence on campus.

Penn State has capacity for some testing and will contract with vendors for the rest, he said. Working with local hospital and health officials, the university will monitor changes in virus caseload and transmission, capacity of local health systems and additional risks, such as an early flu season.