Editor’s Note: COVID-19 killed tens of thousands in the Northeast, caused massive unemployment and wrecked the economy. In an ongoing series of stories, the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group, 37 news sites including the Beaver County Times and Ellwood City Ledger, examines what the government got wrong in its response to the virus, what policies eventually worked — and why we remain vulnerable if the coronavirus strikes harder in the fall.
As companies and businesses frantically worked to adjust to COVID-19 pandemic closures in the spring, Pennsylvania’s universities were no exception. But they faced a separate set of challenges to educate students in a rapidly changing environment.
College officials are hoping the lessons learned during the spring semester will help them navigate a potential second wave of the pandemic this fall.
Unlike companies, universities had to worry about student-housing issues and a quick transition to remote learning.
Ashley Priore, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Pittsburgh, said the school did a good job of informing professors of what might occur, but students were left to rely on their instructors sharing those plans or keeping their ears open for scuttlebutt among those in the know.
“They needed to also tell the students what was going on as well,” said Priore, a Pittsburgh resident.
Pitt’s announcement was made during an extended spring break, so many students, especially those living on campus, were forced to scramble to retrieve their belongings in dormitories or wait weeks before they were allowed back in, Priore said.
Academically, Priore said Pitt handled the transition to online “very well,” but it was apparent that not all instructors were on board with remote classes. “I think it varied from professor to professor, whoever was more comfortable doing tech things,” she said.
Lecture-based classes worked better online than more conversation-driven ones, Priore said. “It’s harder to have those interesting discussions,” she said.
In April, the Brookings Institution published recommendations for universities and faculty caught up in chaotic closings.
For schools, the think-tank’s Rashawn Ray suggested continuing to pay all employees, return housing and meal fees to students, create COVID-19 task forces, make pass/fail grades an option and add a year “to the tenure clock” for faculty.
Ray also recommended that professors “embrace virtual learning,” including podcast-style lectures and eliminating time limits for students who might be dealing with serious pandemic-related issues — as well as holding virtual office hours and shortening assignments.
Most colleges across Pennsylvania made decisions in June about students returning to campus in the upcoming fall semester, though the 14 state schools announced their intentions in mid-July. Those early decisions, however, came before recent spikes in Pennsylvania COVID-19 cases, including among adults in their early 20s, that have frequently been traced to gatherings in bars and restaurants.
“One of the things we learned was our ability to be nimble,” said David Pidgeon, the director of public relations for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, about the switch to online classes for the 14 state schools.
“The state system was able to move tens of thousands of students and thousands of courses onto remote modalities,” he said.
Pitt extending spring break for a week and taking that time to let faculty members consider how their courses would change online was a big advantage, said Cynthia Golden, an associate vice provost at Pitt and the executive director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning, which helped faculty transition their courses to an online format in the spring.
“Taking that week was very helpful,” Golden said. “It just gave us a little time to sort of take a breath and say, ‘How are we going to do this?’”
Most Pennsylvania colleges and universities closed campuses early in the pandemic, which helped to keep those in that age group from spreading the virus.
State health data showed that young adults were the least affected in the early weeks of the crisis, but that began changing when counties started emerging from shutdowns and bars and restaurants reopened.
“No state should be taking a victory lap,” said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. “We’re still in this.”
Golden said that faculty who were already comfortable with technology had an easier time transitioning to online classes, reflecting what Priore said.
Pitt, Golden said, has been using the summer to speak with faculty about the importance of acclimating to a different environment and implementing effective teaching strategies, keeping in mind that faculty members could be facing the same pandemic-induced hardships as students.
“One of the things we’re trying to do at Pitt is be prepared to be flexible,” said Golden, explaining that everyone associated with the university should “acknowledge reality” and understand that people are in difficult situations that they never expected.
Another lesson gleaned from this experience is that “students really appreciate the human touch,” Golden said. Students forced to shift from in-person to online classes could feel isolated, so faculty should occasionally check on them, even send notes.
“We learned that our students really appreciate that,” she said.
Ultimately, schools should encourage faculty to build a feeling of community with students.
“It’s all about the people when it comes down to it,” Golden said. “If you’ve got good people in place, if you’ve got great faculty, you’ve got talented staff to help them and to support them, if everyone really pulls together, learning can happen.”
What needs to be done
Schools say masks and social distancing are a must and, if those rules are not followed, on-campus classes could be cut short again.
“It is absolutely essential that people follow guidelines for masking and social distancing,” said Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs at Penn State University, in a statement. “We know these efforts make a difference.”
There are about 50,000 students at the State College campus and another 50,000 at Penn State’s branch campuses across the state. Penn State has purchased 500,000 masks that will be distributed to all of its campuses for students, faculty and staff.
Personal protective equipment will also be available in a wide range of instructional spaces, according to Penn State. “Even if it is inconvenient or difficult, we have no other choice but to fulfill our personal and collective responsibility to protect ourselves and others,” Sims said.
At York College in York County, COVID-19 testing will be offered to all students who show symptoms or are identified as being at-risk for exposure through contact tracing. The college is asking its more than 4,000 students to self-quarantine at home for 14 days before returning to campus and, once they do, to not leave campus or the area for the rest of the semester.
Masks and social distancing will also be required at York College.
“Like all institutions opening for the fall, we are navigating unfamiliar waters and ever-changing conditions,” York College President Pamela Gunter-Smith said in a statement. “The situation continues to be very fluid. Not only do we continue to learn more about the virus, we have also learned how fragile our gains can be with respect to mitigating COVID-19 spread.”
Like many other colleges across the state, Bucks County Community College has committed to offering most of its courses online, with students only going to campus for activities such as lab work, public safety training or music and art courses. Again, masks and social distancing will be required.
President Stephanie Shanblatt said more students could be allowed on campus if the situation improves, or more online instruction could be added if the health crisis worsens.
Pidgeon, of the state university system, said many state schools will join other Pennsylvania colleges in halting in-person classes at the Thanksgiving break and holding the remainder of the fall semester online to keep students from traveling and then returning to campus.
Schools are making the necessary arrangements to accommodate students, faculty and staff, he said — as well as stressing mask wearing and other precautions. “That’s the way on-campus experiences can happen throughout the semester,” he said.
“There’s a challenge ahead,” Pidgeon said, “but it’s possible to take steps that not only protect yourself, but protects the community around you.”
J.D. Prose is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network in Pennsylvania. Reach him at email@example.com.