Skip to content

Letter to Pennsylvania Governor expressing concerns with the "Back to State" plan

Published: at 12:00 PM

The text of a letter to Pennsylvania’s Governor Tom Wolf is given below with minor formatting changes.

July 28, 2020

Office of the Governor
508 Main Capitol Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120

Dear Governor Wolf:

We are writing to you as faculty and students of the Penn State community to express our serious concerns with the University’s “Back to State” plan. This plan to bring nearly 100,000 students back to twenty-four campuses across the commonwealth is vague and inadequate and it continues to fluctuate without meaningful involvement from faculty, staff, or students. With the start of the fall semester less than a month away, the absence of key details in the university’s plan reveals a lack of preparedness and threatens the health of our communities—particularly at a moment when COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and across the nation are rising. Penn State is set to undermine the state’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 and create the conditions for a public health emergency that will counteract any possible educational or economic benefits of bringing students “Back to State.”

We commend your recent orders regarding the use of masks, limitations on indoor gatherings, and a mandatory self-quarantine for people arriving from 18 different states. These policies will help to stave off further increases of cases and are especially important in college towns like State College and Erie, as well as in rural locations like New Kensington, but only if they are implemented and enforced. Unfortunately, our efforts to hold Penn State accountable are hampered by the state’s surprisingly inexact “preliminary guidelines” for the reopening of postsecondary institutions. These guidelines offer only loose recommendations—rather than specific requirements—when it comes to class sizes, testing procedures, and other health and safety protocols. On many points they are inconsistent with other mandates issued by your office and will result in uneven implementation of necessary protections for public health. To cite one especially troubling example: After your July 15, 2020 announcement restricting indoor gatherings to no more than 25 people, Penn State informed us that this order did not apply to classroom instruction. Yet instructional classrooms are just as, if not more, dangerous in terms of the risks of spreading the virus than other in-person gatherings. It is also unclear if Penn State students and accompanying family members will have to comply with your 14-day self-quarantine order.

Finally, the current lack of guidance on collegiate sports (which your office states is forthcoming) is of growing concern given the recent news that a student athlete has tested positive. Those of us who live in State College are also acutely aware that even if capacity at Beaver Stadium is reduced, fans will flood into town on game weekends to party, creating conditions favorable to the spread of contagion.

An institution of Penn State’s size requires substantial lead time to initiate the complex demands that public safety currently necessitates. Although the administration has promised to reveal more details about testing this week, we have heard these promises before, and we are concerned that any information released at this late date will not have time to be adequately reviewed and debated by the broader university community and local governments. As of this writing, Penn State has failed to specify how it intends to conform to even the most basic guidelines issued by state agencies. Who will be tested, and how frequently? What laboratories will process tests, and how quickly will results be available? (Currently, results in most places are taking a full two weeks.) How will contact tracing be implemented? Given that instructors and classmates of students who test positive are not considered “close contacts” and will not be informed of their exposure to the virus (a fact we recently learned), how will the university know if its classroom safety protocols are sufficient? How and where will students, faculty, and staff who are infected be treated? How many positive cases or deaths will it take to trigger a switch to all-remote learning? Other universities have publicized detailed proposals, including statistical models to explain how they arrived at their testing plan, so that they can be scrutinized and debated by other experts in the university community well in advance of the fall semester. (See, for instance, the reports on testing, and also instructional issues, from Cornell University’s reopening committee.)

In contrast, Penn State has offered no scientific evidence to back its claim that it can safely reopen campuses, and its task groups have not released any information about their proceedings or findings to justify their decisions on matters of either health or educational instruction in the context of this pandemic.

University officials have said only that they will test symptomatic individuals and others identified through contact tracing; students, faculty, and staff will be expected to self-monitor for any symptoms of COVID-19 and then quarantine. This targeted approach is insufficient given the overwhelming evidence that asymptomatic individuals (especially young people) play a significant role in spreading the virus. In contrast, Harvard will be testing all individuals every three days and Cornell will be testing all individuals every five days; like many other universities they also plan to test all students immediately on arrival. A forthcoming study by scientists at Harvard and Yale indicates that a campus with a student population of 5,000 would need to test all students every two days to prevent a major outbreak. We recognize that such frequent and widespread testing poses a challenge for Penn State as a large and geographically dispersed, state-affiliated institution, but the virus does not make any allowances and neither can we. Let us not forget that one Penn State student, Juan García, has already died due to the coronavirus—a loss that speaks to the racial disparities of COVID-19 and the uneven ways in which its continued spread will affect communities statewide. Many of our campuses are located in communities with limited or no hospital facilities, and student health centers (which are unregulated by the state) are simply not equipped to deal with this crisis. Administrators have indicated that employees who become ill will be responsible for all costs not covered by insurance, and the university does not guarantee any paid medical leave. Penn State is putting not only students, but also its employees at serious risk while leaving us to deal with the economic consequences of COVID-19-related health care.

More work must be done to ensure the well-being of our campus communities throughout the commonwealth. We urge your office and the Departments of Health and Education to:

Penn State has not done what it needs to do to bring students back safely and has been opaque in its planning process. The fallout will affect not just faculty, students, staff, and other employees, but also the local communities surrounding Penn State campuses. We ask you to work with Penn State to reconsider its “Back to State” plan and with the Departments of Education and Health to establish stricter and more specific guidance for a return to in-person instruction and operations.

The well-being of the commonwealth and the lives of Penn Staters depend upon it.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Coalition for a Just University at Penn State (CJU at PSU) with co-signatures from the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State and an undergraduate ally