If you’re like me, you’re an on-campus residential student who received an email from Penn State President Eric Barron Friday that announced a remote start to the spring semester on Jan. 19, subsequently delaying in-person classes and on-campus move-in until Feb 15.
While I see where the university was coming from and wholeheartedly agree with mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, in-person classes and on-campus living aren’t the main cause of the rise of positive coronavirus cases.
Throughout the fall semester, the State College community as a whole ignored the real problem — a large portion of students attended parties off campus as if it were a normal semester at Penn State.
It would be completely unfair to lump all downtown dwellers into the same category, but it would be ignorant of me not to discuss some of what I witnessed this semester.
Because students are required to mask and social distance throughout the entirety of in-person classes, there is less risk in contracting the virus on campus.
I believe it is important to acknowledge that Penn State has no jurisdiction over what happens when students aren’t on campus grounds, and I am by no means making baseless accusations toward the university. I am merely bringing to light some of the truths we’ve glossed over amid the coronavirus pandemic.
State College adopted an ordinance on Aug. 4 to enforce masking guidelines and limit the number of people permitted at residential gatherings to 10 people. Violators of the ordinance were subject to a $300 fine and court fees.
In addition, prior to the start of the fall classes on Aug. 24, Penn State required students to agree to a “COVID-19 Compact,” intended to enforce campus virus regulations such as randomized testing; mandatory masking indoors and outdoors; social distancing in campus buildings; isolation upon positive test results; self-quarantine upon close contact with infected individuals; and adherence to the contact tracing system.
There were many violations of the aforementioned policies both on campus and off campus, with some of the highlights being the large, unmasked gathering of freshmen the night of Aug. 19 at East Halls and the large gatherings at the RISE, HERE and Penn Towers apartment complexes during the Penn State vs. Indiana football game on Oct. 24.
These incidents sparked opinionated reactions from fellow classmates, State College residents and the university itself, all of which expressed disdain and disappointment. I was extremely disheartened because it seemed the actions of a select few would nullify the willing compliance of many.
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One Friday night, I decided to drive downtown to hunt for breaking news stories and have some good journalistic fun, as one does. I drove past an outdoor gathering that clearly had too many attendees and was visible to the common sidewalk passerby’s eye. These may not have been Penn State students, but it is easy to assume they could be because of where I was located downtown in proximity to campus.
It was at this moment I felt for the first time a feeling that would become common the rest of the semester — utter disbelief that people were being so blatantly careless, with no consideration given to their on-campus peers.
To my knowledge, none of the attendees received backlash.
Photos and videos from large downtown fraternity parties circulated among students, but we were unable to report the real story on these gatherings, largely due to the fact that fraternity members who aren’t part of Interfraternity Council leadership are prohibited from commenting to the press, effectively preserving IFC’s image.
From Aug. 7 to Dec. 18, there were a total of 5,052 positive coronavirus tests in the fall semester at University Park, according to Penn State’s coronavirus dashboard. It is important to note the possible inflation of this number from students who re-tested after testing positive, unaware that a positive result will still show up after the 10-day isolation period.
While I have not tested positive and experienced this firsthand, it is my understanding that students were advised by the university not to test again after receiving a positive test when Penn State realized this is what some people were doing.
It is extremely naive to assume that by delaying the start of in-person classes in the spring, students won’t return to off-campus living, large parties won’t be thrown and coronavirus cases will significantly decrease.
I give Penn State credit, though, for the coronavirus testing requirements for students who must return early to campus communities that were released on Friday.
“Students are strongly discouraged from returning to campus, off-campus locations and group dwellings (e.g., apartments and fraternities) during the four weeks of the remote period,” the university stated in a news release. “However, [Penn State] recognizes many students live off campus in the communities surrounding Penn State campuses and must return for work-related reasons and other important circumstances. Off-campus students who are returning to their campus community before Feb. 15 are required to be tested before their arrival.”
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Though it is unclear what consequences will ensue if not followed, I appreciate the honest effort from Penn State to do whatever it takes to decrease the amount of positive cases in the State College community.
What still concerns me is Penn State’s contact tracing system. A friend of mine who lives off campus tested positive after I had been in contact with them briefly during lunch. Not only were they unable to reach contact tracing the night they received a positive test, but I was not contacted by the system until the seventh day of my 14-day quarantine.
I had already been self-isolating and did not end up contracting the virus, thankfully.
What is perhaps more surprising is that if you test positive while living on campus, you’re required to move to Penn State’s isolation rooms in Eastview Terrace for 10 days or return home, but off-campus students are not.
If you contract the virus while living off campus, you are given the option to move to on-campus isolation, but you are not forced to return home if you decline on-campus isolation.
The actions of students attending large, off-campus parties are not only negatively affecting on-campus residents this spring, but also local businesses.
Downtown businesses in State College have already been struggling since the university closed last spring, and the delay of on-campus move-in and in-person classes will only broaden these financial hardships, possibly leading to more closures in the near future.
As we approach the spring semester, the main focus of the university should not be on-campus housing and in-person classes, but on working with downtown entities to enforce coronavirus guidelines more successfully. That will hopefully be what decreases coronavirus cases, if anything.