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PSU’s faculty blasts restart

University instructors, staff hold virtual rally

The Penn State faculty group that recently wrote an open letter expressing concerns about the university’s fall restart held a Zoom rally Wednesday, excoriating Penn State’s testing plan as inadequate, compared to those of universities like Harvard, while also criticizing the university’s plan for contact tracing, information sharing and policies for sick leave and non-tenured instructors.

Penn State’s plan for reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic is “robust” — 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 and national levels,” university spokesman Wyatt DuBois wrote in an email.

While Penn State intends to test 30 percent of returning students — those living in hot spots — before they return and 1 percent randomly every day thereafter, Harvard will test all returnees upon arrival, then everyone every third day thereafter, said Sarah Townsend, associate professor at University Park and co-organizer of The Coalition for a Just University at Penn State.

Harvard is Ivy League, and plenty of colleges have worse plans than Penn State, but it “doesn’t seem like a good idea to race to the bottom,” Townsend said.

The University of Illinois, a state school like Penn State, will test all returning students within a week of coming back and everyone thereafter twice a week, she said.

Ten percent daily testing is the “bare bones” minimum for “serious protection,” based on science, she said.

Pre-arrival testing will involve 30,000 people “from locations with a high prevalence,” DuBois wrote.

Daily testing of faculty, staff and students on the various campuses will comprise about 700 people per day, he said. “The plan includes random and risk-stratified surveillance testing as well as asymptomatic testing for individuals who are identified in the contact-tracing process,” he wrote.

Testing mandatory

The testing will be mandatory, according to a July 30 news release from the university.

“This critical element of testing individuals without symptoms gives us the ability to monitor changes in disease prevalence throughout our campus communities, identify trends and inform us regarding if and when additional mitigation steps are required prior to a possible outbreak,” stated Dr. Kevin Black, interim dean of the College of Medicine, who helped to oversee the task group developing the plan, as quoted in the news release.

The university will hire contact tracers as needed “to support all campuses and plans to enhance access to early health-care consultation and treatment,” DuBois wrote.

“The University also is building capacity to isolate and quarantine individuals who test positive, including support for isolated persons, to facilitate proper medical care,” DuBois wrote.

Other universities have created models to guide their reopenings, including a well-known one from Cornell and one that will become public this week from the Illinois, but the faculty group “has no idea what information (Penn State) is using,” Townsend said.

Rather than a scientific model, the school seems to be relying on a “compact” calling for students to mask and otherwise behave appropriately, Townsend said.

That compact includes a provision that releases the university from liability if a student becomes ill, a release that may give parents concern, given the inadequate protection effort, she said.

Multi-layered approach

The school “took a multi-layered approach” to testing, tracing and monitoring, Black stated in the news release.

Those include the use of commercial vendors, on-campus testing at a new Testing and Surveillance Center and analysis of risk, based on prevalence of COVID-19 where returnees have been living, Black stated in the news release.

The strategy will take into account the COVID-19 infection level in each area where campuses are located, according to the news release.

It’s a “comprehensive strategy,” university President Eric Barron stated in the news release.

The effort includes a seven-day quarantine at home for everyone prior to returning, mandatory quarantine at home until medically cleared for those who have had contact with an infected person, who have symptoms themselves or who have tested positive, and mandatory pre-arrival testing for staffers who support for check-ins, according to the news release.

And it includes a recommendation for caution and the use of masks during travel back to school.

Students on campus who are suspected of having COVID-19 will be quarantined in special isolation units, while those living off campus “will be accommodated with on-campus isolation space to the extent that the university is able,” according to the news release.

There will be a campus-by-campus “dashboard” available to the public to track the university’s COVID-19 situation that will not compromise privacy, according to the news release.

But the fall semester could end up being “an unmitigated disaster,” due to potential issues with shared spaces, different modes of curriculum delivery and mixing of commuter and campus-residency students, said Anna Schmitt, who will be a junior at Penn State Behrend.

An experiment

The administration seems not to have taken seriously the concerns of faculty and staff members, but has resorted to “vague pleasantries and unsupported statements,” Schmitt said.

The fall reopening is “an experiment,” said Liz Pullen, mother of a student returning to University Park. She’s not willing for her son to be part of that experiment — even though he’s eager to socialize with his friends, she said. “We are at a stage nationally that is not ready for kids” to return, she stated. If her son becomes ill, things will get complicated for her family, because of her age and health condition, she said. She spoke of “the fear that is in our bellies.”

If Penn State’s plans somehow don’t prevent an outbreak at University Park, the area hospital may not be ready to handle the situation, according to rally speaker Denelle Welher, president of the SEIU Healthcare PA union local at Mount Nittany Medical Center in State College, citing proposed staff cutbacks there.

“We don’t have unlimited capacity,” Welher said.

The hospital is ready, spokeswoman Nichole Monica said.

“Our staffing plans are designed to be flexible and enable us to handle fluctuations in community needs,” she stated.

How to teach

In contrast with the open letter, there wasn’t much emphasis during the rally on faculty members being able to choose whether to teach in-person, online or in combination.

But “there is one Commonwealth campus in particular (not Altoona) where faculty members were being asked to meet individually with an administrator to justify their request to teach remotely,” which meant those instructors had to divulge confidential health information, creating “a very coercive situation for fixed-term (contingent) or untenured professors,” Townsend wrote in an email after the meeting.

“More generally, there is a concern that some contingent faculty have volunteered to teach in person simply because they are want to keep their job, and they’re uncertain about whether there will be reprisals if they choose to teach remotely,” Townsend wrote.

That is why the group wants a guarantee that all faculty can choose their mode of instruction and that there will be no reprisals, she said.

That exemplifies how universities are part of the “real world,” and how the issues the group is dealing with are not “ivory tower” ones, Townsend wrote, in connection with a Mirror reader’s comment to a notice about the rally in Tuesday’s Mirror — “Wow! Need to join the real world, where everything is not guaranteed. Where you might be laid off, and not be paid. Where you may have to pay for your own health care costs. And where you are NOT more special than all the people around you!”

“The majority of faculty are non-tenure-line, and in many cases, they earn salaries typical of low-paid service workers,” Townsend wrote. “As unemployment skyrockets, more and more people are questioning why it is that big companies get bailouts and CEOs are earning more money while regular people bear the burden of the economic fallout.”

The group doesn’t think its members are “special,” but wants better conditions for all workers, Townsend said.

University management in the U.S. seems to be exploiting the pandemic to restructure and “impose shock doctrines,” leading people who never saw themselves as activists to become so, said Sherry Wolf, senior organizer with the American Association of University Professors/American Federation of Teachers union at Rutgers University, who spoke at the rally.

There needs to be collaboration between different kinds of university employees, from professors to maintenance staffers and between them and people in the neighborhoods, according to Wolf, whose organization has taken on issues including immigration and Black Lives Matter, she said.

“We need to be more aggressive,” Wolf said. “We need to dust off the books of the 1930s labor movement.”

The members of the Penn State group need to pay attention to the interests of members of the general community at the university’s campuses, including some in low-income areas, along with the interests of non-traditional students and all staffers, said Julio Palma, assistant professor of chemistry at Penn State Fayette.

The COVID-19 crisis that has led to the group’s formation has caused a crisis of economics, and it has exposed social justice issues for people of color and the poor, he said.

“This is the time to actually practice what we’re trying to teach our students,” he said.

The group’s cause is “right, moral and just,” said Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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