Barron discusses student progress, pandemic planning at Trustees meeting

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the fall semester underway, Penn State President Eric J. Barron described the ongoing comprehensive COVID-19 planning efforts and potential mitigation steps the University is prepared to take across its campuses in a presentation to the Board of Trustees (Sept. 18). Highlighting the “extraordinary efforts” of students, faculty and staff given challenging times, he also shared updates related to student progress, research and fundraising. 

“In one of the most trying years for our University community, I have seen students, faculty, and staff continuously step up given the hardships many have faced,” Barron said. “As we continue to plan for a host of potential scenarios due to the pandemic, I want to recognize the valuable work that so many have contributed to our institution over the past months, as well as the progress our students are making as they stride forward in their Penn State careers and futures.” 

Despite the many concerns, uncertainties and challenges for higher education that the pandemic has presented, including multi-million-dollar financial losses and new expenditures related to course delivery and safety protocols, Barron focused his remarks on what has been accomplished. Among the year’s milestones, the University’s research enterprise topped a record $1 billion in expenditures; fundraising had a record fiscal year in 2019-20 with a strong start to 2020-21; and favorable graduation rates, enrollment data and other indicators point toward continued student success. 

Student progress 

“We are here to support our students and provide options to help them meet their academic goals, continue to have student experiences that are so valuable in college, and prepare for their careers and futures,” Barron said.

Some of the highlights outlined by the president and related to students include:

  • A promising enrollment outlook based on steady attendance for summer and fall 2020 compared with the previous year, and also based on current student account payments and financial aid disbursements.
  • Recognition of recent spring and summer graduates, and an update on the virtual career services, programs and resources developed to support students, alumni and employers — including a library of grab-and-go workshops, virtual recruitment series and upcoming virtual Fall Career Days.
  • The University’s offering of four course delivery options — including in-person, mixed mode, remote synchronous and remote asynchronous — with just less than half of all course sections offered University-wide delivered in an in-person or hybrid mode. The four modes maximize flexibility for both students and faculty for teaching and learning, according to Barron. 
  • To support classroom safety and physical distancing, new protocols were established for students in science, engineering, health and performing arts programs with required hands-on interactions, including disinfecting workstations, wearing masks and gloves, and lab tables with Plexiglass dividers. Classes are held outdoors when weather permits and students alternate weeks learning in-person and online, while those not living near campus attend on Zoom.
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Research expenditures

Penn State’s research expenditures reached a record high of more than $1 billion for the 2019-20 fiscal year, with $633 million coming from federal funds and $375 million from a combination of University, industry and state sources, Barron said. 

“Given the impacts of the pandemic, the importance of scientific discovery and the creation of new, innovative knowledge is more critical than ever, and our research enterprise continues to serve the Commonwealth, nation and world,” Barron said. “Prioritizing the health and well-being of our researchers and supporting the continuity of our essential research activities has been a high priority as we’ve navigated the past six months.”

Throughout the pandemic, the University has prioritized sustaining safe research activities, facilitated remote research, and continued core research facilities, which are now back at approximately 80% activity from before the pandemic. To support student researchers during this time, restrictions were cautiously eased for undergraduates and graduate students as part of a Return to Research plan focused on health and safety, and the University sponsored $16 million in supplemental awards for graduate students. 

Fundraising efforts

As the pandemic and national economic downturn continue to unfold, Penn State’s alumni and friends have supported the University at unprecedented levels, Barron said, for which he is grateful. With the first two months of the current fiscal year off to a strong start, there were record fundraising highs in fiscal year 2019-20. Donors committed more than $381,323,670 — designated for specific purposes such as scholarships and programs — continuing a three-year streak of record-breaking commitment totals. As part of the campaign, $15.5 million was raised for the new home of the Palmer Museum of Art, which is expected to drive economic and cultural development in Centre County. 

To provide support for students, more than $213,000 was raised for campus food pantries as part of the Tackle Hunger Challenge and more than $650,000 was raised for the Student Care and Advocacy Emergency Fund, which has assisted students facing hardship during the pandemic. 

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In addition, the Educational Equity Matching Program established four new matching opportunities with gifts totaling $5.4 million with a total impact of $12 million. When all programs are fully funded, the total effect will be $20.9 million in scholarships to recruit and retain students whose gender, race, ethnic, cultural and/or national background contribute to the diversity of the student body. 

COVID-19 planning 

As COVID-19 continues to impact college campuses across the country, the University has put in place a number of mitigation efforts, including required wearing of face masks, continual monitoring of infection rates, isolating and quarantining individuals, increased cleaning and disinfection of facilities, and curtailing or suspending some programs and activities.

Twice weekly, the University updates its COVID-19 dashboard with on-demand and random testing data. Currently at University Park there is one documented COVID case among faculty or staff, and as of Sept. 17, isolation space stands at 58% capacity and quarantine space is at 27% capacity, with the ability to expand space if needed. In addition, 656 individuals have moved out of quarantine and isolation. 

Barron said that as Penn State planned for a return to campus and work, University leaders developed numerous contingency strategies to support health and safety, including a number of “off and on ramp” scenarios that will allow Penn State to quickly respond and continue its teaching and learning mission if changes are needed during the semester.

These scenarios focus on health and safety, flexibility to change course as circumstances require, continuing toprovide critical services, and following local and state COVID guidance and requirements. Examples of possible off-ramps include suspending use of specific buildings and spaces, quarantining a program or cohort, suspending or curtailing some in-person programs, quarantining residents of a specific hall, pausing in-person classes for a defined period, pausing programs and reducing operations at a specific campus, and transitioning all programs and classes at a campus to remote delivery. 

The decision to initiate an off-ramp scenario will be based on a variety of key factors beyond/in addition to the number of cases, including quarantine and isolation capacity, hospital capacity, and faculty and staff spread to the community, according to Barron.

To view Barron’s full presentation, visit http://www.psu.edu/ur/newsdocuments/presidents_report_Sept20.pptx.


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