Hundreds Of Penn State Faculty, Staff Sign Letter Demanding Stronger COVID-19 Policies

Nearly 1,500 Penn State employees and students signed a recently published open letter asking the university to take stronger actions against COVID-19 this fall.

The letter, posted Sunday by the Coalition for a Just University at Penn State, urged the university to ramp up virus precautions as students get set to return to campus later in August. Signees demanded Penn State require COVID-19 vaccinations and reinstate testing requirements, among other requests.

“As Penn State faculty, we are eager to welcome students back to campus for the start of the Fall 2021 semester, but we are deeply concerned that our university is unprepared to handle the ongoing increase in COVID-19 cases and the emergence of the more contagious Delta variant,” the letter’s introduction reads.

The most significant element of the open letter surrounded COVID-19 vaccination requirements — or, rather, Penn State’s lack of any. So far, the university has largely shied away from requiring vaccines. Instead, it’s focused on incentivizing vaccinations by hosting free vaccine clinics and weekly raffles for vaccinated students and employees.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 600 campuses nationwide are requiring at least some students or employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

If it passed a mandate, Penn State would join more than half of the Big Ten by requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. RutgersIndianaMichigan StateNorthwesternMarylandIllinois, and Michigan each have similar requirements, although some let unvaccinated people bypass vaccines if they test negative for the virus each week.

Earlier this summer, Penn State launched “anonymous,” non-mandatory surveys to learn if students and employees were vaccinated. To date, the university hasn’t published any collected data. It’s unclear how many students and employees are already vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Vaccines work, and the more of us who get vaccinated, the better they will work,” the letter reads.

Both the university’s faculty senate and student government passed resolutions urging vaccine mandates for students and employees.

The letter notes that Penn State already requires students to obtain vaccinations against measles, mumps, meningitis, and more. COVID-19 vaccines, however, have been approved only for emergency use, which could create obstacles for potential mandates.

Still, Penn State faculty and staff say the long-running pandemic creates a sense of urgency.

“In contrast, the vaccination for COVID-19, a disease that has killed well over 600,000 people in the U.S. and more than 4 million worldwide, is being presented as a ‘personal choice,'” the letter reads.

Faculty and staff also cited a lack of concrete mitigation plans as a major frustration. To date, according to the letter, Penn State hasn’t announced plans to conduct surveillance testing for COVID-19. The post’s author claims potential outbreaks will be tough to detect and contain without random testing each day.

This summer, unvaccinated students living on campus are required to get tested for COVID-19 weekly. Although it’s not mandatory, students can bypass testing by submitting proof of vaccination through myUHS’ online portal.

Walk-up testing is currently available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, at Pegula Ice Arena. Penn State hasn’t publicized plans to expand testing once the fall semester begins.

Although quarantine and isolation capacity has lessened from last year, Penn State will reserve 200 Eastview Terrace rooms for students affected by COVID-19 this fall.

Additionally, the letter calls on Penn State to reintroduce requirements and social distancing requirements on campus. Currently, Penn State’s policy requires only unvaccinated individuals to wear masks indoors, although such a practice is practically impossible to legitimately enforce. Outdoor masking and distancing aren’t required for anyone.

Signees also say the university has a responsibility to prevent on-campus cases by taking action before the academic year begins.

“During the 2020-2021 academic year, Penn State was near the very top of the list of U.S. universities with the most COVID-19 cases. We do not want to see such high rates of infection again,” the letter reads, referencing University Park’s 7,700-plus reported COVID-19 cases since August 2020. “We are asking you for all of the following because we are Penn State and care about Penn State.”

The open letter also asks Penn State to give students and instructors greater flexibility in the classroom this fall. Although upwards of 95% of Penn State’s courses will be delivered in person this fall, concerns surrounding virus exposure and accessibility remain.

“We also must be able to adopt different teaching/learning environments as the situation requires it,” the letter says. “How will a faculty member continue to conduct in-person classes if several of their students are infected or in quarantine due to possible exposure and are therefore unable to attend class? How are those students supposed to continue learning? What if an outbreak shuts down an elementary school and a faculty, staff member, or student must remain at home with their child? We are a large, diverse community with different concerns and responsibilities.”

Final demands referenced in the letter included continued regulation of air ventilation and greater access to mental health resources.

Penn State’s fall semester officially begins on Monday, August 23. The Board of Trustees — the administrative body ultimately responsible for shaping the university’s policies — isn’t scheduled to meet again until September 16 and 17.

Penn State students and employees can read more about the open letter (and sign it if they’re so inclined) by following this link.

Although it did not comment on specific issues, Penn State said its COVID-19-related policies should become clearer following Tuesday, August 3’s virtual town hall.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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