What We Learned At Penn State’s Virtual Town Halls

University administrators met with the community for a total of three hours on Tuesday to answer a variety of questions related to its response to the coronavirus. The two virtual town halls provided clarity on what has guided decision-making to date, what the near future could look like, and what resources are available to students, faculty, and staff to aid the transition to online learning.

We live-blogged the student-focused town hall if you want a more comprehensive look at the event, but here’s the biggest things we got answers on:

Some Physical Ceremony Will Recognize Graduation

Not much has been said about commencement during this period of uncertainty, but Penn State has remained committed to hosting it for this semester’s graduates in some form, unlike several other universities that have canceled it outright.

Spring commencement is postponed for the time being, but the university is considering recognizing graduates in two phases: first a virtual one in May and then an actual physical ceremony at a later date. Obviously, with the current situation’s uncertainty, when that ceremony would take place is not yet set. But this, as well as the university’s previous tone in addressing the topic, should be reassuring for seniors.

“We want to do is celebrate your achievements and give you that moment that’s so special,” President Eric Barron said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has mentioned how special it is to have that moment as a capstone to your Penn State degree.”

Students Can Opt Into A Few Different Grading Policies

One week after Faculty Senate passed a resolution in support of implementing a satisfactory/unsatisfactory option for grades for this semester, a modified version was officially introduced during the student town hall.

Under the new policy, you’ll have a few options of what you want to do grade-wise at the end of the semester. Once grades are finalized, you’ll have a week to decide whether you’d like to: (a) keep your letter grade; (b) take it on a satisfactory (C and above)/passing (D and above)/no grade (failing) basis, or have a V replace a D grade and Z replace an F grade to note any struggles due to this semester’s circumstances.

The variety of options was driven by administrators’ desire to provide sufficient flexibility to students going through a variety of circumstances this semester.

More information is expected to come out tomorrow about the specifics of this policy, but by our count, of the 26 letters in the alphabet, 10 represent possible grades this semester: A, B, C, D, F, S, P, N, V, and Z.

The Transition To Online Classes Has Gone Better Than Expected

By 10 a.m. on the first day of remote learning, more than 63,000 Penn Staters around world had already logged onto Zoom. Additionally, more than 350 Zoom sessions around the world had been opened.

These numbers would equate to 65% of the global student body and about 180 people in each Zoom session, which both seem a bit hard to believe. However, I think there is a degree of truth in them that the new system is being adopted on such a large scale. I, for one, haven’t heard any horror stories just yet.

All indications given by administrators during the town hall seemed to be that the process is going smoother than expected, and there really weren’t any recurring issues addressed.

Barnes & Noble Will Send Prepaid Labels For Returning Books Bought On Campus

If you rented a book through the university’s bookstore, Barnes & Noble will email a prepaid shipping label to you to return it at the end of the semester. There will not be an opportunity to sell your books back this semester.

All Salaries & Benefits Will Be Paid Through At Least April 30

Barron committed to the university paying all employees’ salaries and benefits through at least the end of April, in an effort to comfort any fears of “an abrupt financial situation.” April 30 is not a definitive cut-off point for employees, but more of a security blanket. In the weeks between now and then, decisions will be made about what’s financially viable for the university depending on how the current situation progresses.

In the student town hall, Barron clarified the policy will cover full-time hourly employees and is in the process of pertaining to work-study students.

Additionally, at this time, the university is advising departments to limit hiring to only critical roles. It also won’t offer raises.

Student Emergency Fund Is Growing But Needs More Help

The Student Emergency Fund has been promoted extensively during the last few weeks. During the last week, the generosity of more than 1,200 donors around the world has raised $100,000 to benefit students impacted by unforeseen circumstances like the coronavirus pandemic.

However, while impressive, that total isn’t where it needs to be in order to meet students’ needs. You can contribute to the fund here.

 “We know a large number of students are experiencing some level of financial stress,” Barron said. “But the amount of funding there is inadequate during a crisis like a pandemic.”

Study Abroad Should Resume One Day

I found this part of the town hall fairly interesting. I’ve never doubted whether study abroad programs will continue in the future, but this was a legitimate concern submitted as a question by a student.

It is something to think about as the world will likely be a bit different once we emerge on the other side of this pandemic. Certain policies and accepted practices will certainly change as we learn from mistakes and take safer, more preventive steps.

Apparently, some wonder if studying abroad will be one of them. Penn State has already canceled its abroad trips for the summer, but Provost Nick Jones appeared very emphatic that he didn’t want them to be terminated permanently due to this year. He even said he hopes to see them again “in the not-too-distant future.”

“Penn State is a global institution. We embrace that,” he said.

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About the Author

Anthony Colucci

Anthony Colucci was once Onward State’s managing editor and preferred walk-on honors student who majored in psychology and public relations. Despite being from the make-believe land of Central Jersey, he was never a Rutgers fan. If you ever want to know how good Saquon Barkley's ball security is, ask Anthony what happened when he tried to force a fumble at the Mifflin Streak. If you want to hear the story or are bored and want to share prequel memes, follow @_anthonycolucci on Twitter or email him at [email protected]. All other requests and complaints should be directed to Onward State media contact emeritus Steve Connelly.

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