Pennsylvania State University freshmen started moving into their dorms in State College on Monday, and by Wednesday night, they were dancing, chanting, and crowding together without masks as if the lawn outside their residence halls was a rowdy football tailgate.
Several videos of the mosh pit-like crowd outside East Halls, an all-freshman dorm complex, began circulating on Twitter overnight. The images raised concern as other universities, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame, have pivoted to online learning after coronavirus outbreaks occurred on their campuses within days of reopening.
Penn State president Eric Barron said the university could be forced to do so as well if these kind of gatherings continue.
“I ask students [flouting] the university’s health and safety expectations a simple question: Do you want to be the person responsible for sending everyone home?” Barron said Thursday in a statement. “This behavior cannot and will not be tolerated. We have said from the beginning, health and safety is our priority, and if the university needs to pivot to fully remote instruction, we will.”
The same day as the East Halls gathering, an off-campus fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi, was suspended after the university received reports that it had hosted a social Tuesday night with more than 15 people who were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing, Barron said.
Penn State had taken preemptive steps in the hope of preventing outbreaks on its campus, which in a normal year is home to more than 40,000 undergraduate students.
Before returning to campus, students had to sign a coronavirus compact and agree to social distancing; wear masks indoors and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible; and be tested as the university directs. Penn State has said failure to follow these rules could result in disciplinary action, including suspension or expulsion.
The president did not say whether anyone would be punished as a result of Wednesday’s party. He reminded students they could be expelled for not following coronavirus rules, but also said, “Ultimately, this is not about sanctioning. It is about protecting individual and community health.”
The university will continue to promote its “Mask Up or Pack Up” campaign, Barron said, and post new fliers in residence halls.
When university officials became aware of Wednesday’s gathering, they intervened and broke it up, he said. A video obtained by the student news website Onward State showed the crowd suddenly dispersing as someone yelled in the background.
Some people said the president was pointing fingers at students when the administration should have known college students would congregate.
“Let’s be clear here: Penn State created the situation for this to happen by blatantly refusing to listen to the PSU and local community members on students returning to in-person instruction,” tweeted the university’s Coalition of Graduate Employees. “This response is absolutely inadequate. JUST CLOSE.”'
Adam Harris, a staff writer for the Atlantic, included Barron’s message in a Twitter thread of other university presidents scolding students after calling them back to campus. He linked to a July article with the headline, “Colleges are getting ready to blame their students.”
Some Penn State students, meanwhile, took to Twitter to say the freshmen’s behavior was in violation of the coronavirus compact and should be punished. Thousands of people signed an online petition to “send all PSU freshmen home after breaking corona rules.” Freshmen were moving into on-campus housing from Monday to Thursday, while upperclassmen will return over the weekend.
Penn State running back Journey Brown chimed in on Twitter, too, sharing the video and writing “Yuh we ain’t playing…”
The Big Ten Conference recently called off the football season due to coronavirus concerns, meaning Beaver Stadium — which overlooks East Halls — will sit empty this fall. But some players and coaches, including James Franklin, have expressed optimism about the possibility of a winter or spring season, if campus outbreaks are mitigated.
Crowded, mask-less gatherings have also been spotted on reopened campuses from Georgia to Michigan. Last week, a video of hundreds of Villanova University students drew scrutiny. A Villanova spokesperson said Thursday there were no coronavirus cases on campus. He said the university does not discuss discipline measures, but students can face sanctions for not adhering to the health and safety guidelines.
In light of reports of partying on other campuses, La Salle University on Thursday moved to hold its fall semester almost entirely online.
“We would be naive to think that we might be able to avoid this fate,” the university said in a statement. “In fact, we already have received multiple reports of off-campus students here at La Salle who have been non-compliant with our guidelines and, in some cases, who are already engaged in our conduct proceedings as a result.”
At Penn State, Barron said overall he had been “impressed” by adherence to coronavirus policies.
“But make no mistake,” he said, “it only takes a few to ruin it for the many, as we have seen at other universities across the country.”