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Letter to the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses expressing concerns with the "Back to State" plan

Published: at 12:00 PM

The text of a letter to Dr. Madlyn Hanes is given below with minor formatting changes.

July 28, 2020

Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State University
111 Old Main
University Park, PA

Dear Dr. Hanes,

From our discussions with faculty and staff from the five stand-alone colleges and the Commonwealth campuses of Penn State, we are concerned that the plan to return to campus this fall, “Back to State,” does not currently take sufficient account of the differences between the various PSU locations. As you know, there are a number of ways in which the campuses differ from University Park, all of which have an impact on how we can maintain the safety of students, staff, and faculty as we return to fifty percent face to face instruction. These include the different counties of the state in which we are located, their varying rates of COVID-19 infection, and their uneven access to adequate healthcare; commuter versus resident students; our specific teaching loads and the way they impact our ability to provide students with classrooms in which adequate social distancing can occur; and uneven access to broadband internet.

We are particularly concerned that Penn State has yet to announce how it will “employ strategies to create an effective detection and management system for all of its campuses, including testing, contact tracing, and monitoring and reacting to trends in data at the community, state and national levels”—as the Office of the President continues to insist it will. Campus faculty teach more courses than their counterparts at UP and so are particularly concerned to hear full details of the university’s plans, especially given the announced policy that faculty and fellow students will not be notified when a student in their class tests positive. We also see no evidence that the distinct dangers faced by our commuter campuses have been acknowledged. At such campuses, every student necessarily interacts continuously with family, work, community, and campus, making the campus epidemiologically inseparable from the surrounding communities.

Similarly, several commonwealth campuses serve populations with exceptional socioeconomic challenges. Disadvantaged communities suffer disproportionately from housing and employment insecurity and lack access to basic resources such as healthcare. Longstanding economic disadvantages and social inequities in these areas magnify the effects of the pandemic, particularly for minorities and marginalized populations. Proper attention to the specific needs of these campus communities is therefore a social justice issue and a concrete test of the university’s declared commitment to anti-racism.

We write to ask you to encourage the university to formulate, as soon as possible, concrete and scientifically valid plans that account for these differences among the campuses and to specify strategies for testing and contact tracing so that we can be assured that, when our students, staff, and faculty return to campus, they will be as protected as possible from this deadly virus and its many consequences.

The Local Organizing Working Group of the Coalition for a Just University at Penn State (CJU/PSU)