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One Townie’s Perspective On State College & Penn State’s Return To Campus

To say I’m conflicted about Penn State’s fall semester would be an understatement. 

When I began my college career two years ago, it never crossed my mind I’d need to choose between my education and the well-being of the community that raised me. Yet here I am, just days away from beginning my junior year, faced with the coronavirus pandemic — a dilemma that has no clear answer.

Before I started elementary school, my family moved to Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, a small town a stone’s throw away from State College. I spent my Saturdays at Beaver Stadium, my winters at Tussey Mountain, and took being a “local” to heart. I even graduated from State College Area High School. 

As a townie, I often hear folks ask, “What it’s like growing up in such a small town?” But to many peoples’ surprise, despite its small-town feel, State College is much bigger than you’d think. The district has eight public elementary schools, two public middle schools, and a public high school that graduates more than 600 students each year. 

This town has more than 40,000 residents on top of an already large student population at Penn State. When they were sent home back in March, State College community members quickly banded together to establish social distancing guidelines, create mask mandates, and help out our neighbors.

Although we didn’t see a large number of cases to start, State College eventually shut down. Closures certainly helped limit the virus’ spread, but a few businesses, including Sadie’s Waffles, Brothers Pizza, and many more, were forced to close their doors for good.

One business deemed “non-essential” by the state was owned by my parents. Their dental practice was shut down for more than two months as the American Dental Association attempted to find a solution. While they felt the stress of the financial losses, I could tell the mental hardship it put on them as owners and the emotional burden that came along as leaders of their staff. Like millions of others around the country, in the best interest of their employees, they were laid off to collect unemployment. The dental practice has since been deemed an essential business and reopened, though.

With students coming back this week, I’m worried State College will see a similar scene to what it saw last spring. A few weeks ago, I chatted about community members’ lack of concern with guidelines when “Arts Fest” crowds roamed the streets without masks. The town was packed like the day before a football game, balconies featured hordes of students, and front yards were filled to the brim with daylongs. 

I’d hoped some students’ attitudes would change after that weekend. I was wrong.

While driving through town this weekend, I saw large groups of students roaming the streets without masks or even a care in the world. I don’t expect much to change in the next few days as the semester gets rolling.

Most of all, I keep circling back to worrying State College’s small businesses will be forced to shut down (or worse) if the borough becomes a coronavirus epicenter and students are sent home once again. 

But despite the many risks bringing students back to campus poses, State College needs them here. This town runs on students and isn’t prepared to deal with more than one student-less period like we’ve seen this summer. If students can’t pick up the slack and take these precautions seriously, they’ll get sent home and State College could suffer.

I’m especially conflicted from an academic standpoint. I fully support students returning to campus. Although Zoom courses didn’t work for me (and many other folks), some in-person instruction is better than none. Reuniting students with the friends and campus they love should work wonders for their mental health and social well-being, which both certainly took a hit after a few months in quarantine.

We’ve already seen what can happen if students don’t follow guidelines and mandates. UNC-Chapel Hill announced all undergraduate courses are shifting to remote learning starting Wednesday. Its change of heart came following a roughly 14% increase in campus positivity rate, with nearly 350 students in quarantine. This decision comes within a week of their return to campus.

As students start moving back to our campus, you must think that with nearly double the number of undergraduate students than Chapel Hill, Penn State may be headed for a similarly grim outcome.

It’s okay to not have answers to the pandemic so far. Honestly, no one does. We’re all just trying to get back to “normal.”

At the end of the day, State College needs students, and students need State College. I urge everyone to wear their masks and seriously follow the policies that Penn State and State College have put into place. I urge people to stay home from class if they feel sick and get tested as much as possible.

Be conscious of others, especially for this town that does so much more for you than you know. By taking action yourself, you can make sure there’s a town to return to for years to come.

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About the Author

Samuel Brungo

Samuel is a Junior majoring in Film & Video from State College, Pennsylvania. While he is primarily visual staff, he also writes for Onward State and is a Co-Host of our podcast, Podward State. He enjoys sports, music, and art... also loves dogs. He roots for the Steelers, Penguins, and unfortunately, the Knicks. Beyond Onward State, Samuel is involved with Student Programming Association (SPA).

If you'd like to contact Samuel, you can email him at [email protected] OR connect with him via
Twitter @SBrungoPhoto
Instagram @SamuelBrungoPhotography.

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