Last week I taught my first class on Zoom, attended my first entirely virtual University Faculty Senate meeting, announced that classes will continue remotely through the semester, and determined, based on CDC recommendations, that graduation will be postponed — sadly another first. These recent weeks have been packed with unfortunate firsts, but also filled with creative solutions, powerful support for one another, and a remarkable sense of unity. The entire Penn State community has shown a level of ‘can-do’ that rivals anything I have ever seen, and I find it incredibly inspiring.
As I mentioned in the town halls, I’m very grateful for the extraordinary efforts of Penn Staters everywhere for continuing our important work of teaching, research and service, while adhering to rapidly changing guidelines for nearly every aspect of our daily lives. I also see an opportunity to engage with Penn Staters in the temporary (I hope) “new normal” remote learning environment and hope we can cultivate community while you’re off campus. Despite the challenging times, I’m heartened by hearing the inspirational anecdotes of Penn Staters coming together in new and amazing ways. We want and need to hear your stories. I encourage you to directly submit stories and shout-outs to https://news.psu.edu/WeAre.
For now, I hope you will join with me in celebrating a few of the ways Penn Staters are helping others.
Student Care and Advocacy
I want to begin by noting the outpouring of support for our students who are under considerable financial stress because of the outbreak of COVID-19. Even as our alumni, faculty and staff face upheaval in their own lives, they have generously given to the Student Care & Advocacy Emergency Fund. Over the past week, 1,200 alumni and friends have made gifts totaling over $115,000 — an inspiring show of support at a time when students urgently need both the funds and the encouragement to persevere. Much more is needed to help our most at-risk students, so please add your support in any way you can.
Personalizing Remote Teaching
Now consider teaching — in what our students call Zoom University. Penn State has long been a pioneer in online education with our World Campus, ranked among the best programs of its kind in the country. This accumulated expertise informed our rapid shift to remote instruction for nearly 100,000 students across all our campuses. Still, as I experienced with my class, quickly pivoting to remote instruction is challenging — especially for some disciplines.
How do we effectively teach a laboratory experiment remotely when faculty are asked not to come to campus? So, Professor Neyda Abreu (DuBois), and colleagues from the Eberly College of Science and the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses, without prompting, teamed up to offer a Zoom session on Remote Learning and Labs for all faculty teaching science labs. The session included best practices and creative solutions, as well as breakout sessions by discipline. We Are there to help each other deliver. Planned follow-up sessions on additional topics include exams and academic integrity. The College of Engineering, among others, is also planning similar sessions to help students gain the necessary skills learned in labs.
After hearing from a musical theatre student who believed his semester was lost, I talked to the director, John Simpkins. He said, “We’re scrambling, but we have some ideas that we will start tomorrow!” He added, “Our students are game and they are being awesome.”
In my own class, which met at the normal time, the discussion was rich and thoughtful. But I also heard an interesting comment. I was told that “we get to see each other and make sure we are all okay.”
Penn State Libraries have alerted faculty to valuable resources such as: Academic Video Online, which has a bevy of streaming video resources. This one covers a wide range of subjects and topics, including anthropology, business, counseling, film, health, history, music and more.
And, I have to give a shout out to Barnes & Noble and VitalSource. They are currently offering free access to digital versions of textbooks throughout the remainder of the spring semester. Students can use their school email address to log into VitalSource Bookshelf’s mobile app to access the books. In addition, although the Penn State University Libraries physical locations are closed, the staff is working overtime to provide digital options for students to access their books from home — through E-Reserves and Canvas.
This just scratches the surface of what has been created in less than two weeks.
Serving Our Community
Penn State Housing and Food Services has been supporting the students who remain on the University Park campus with All To Go — a new model for residential dining that provides all to-go food options; there are no cashiers, and everything is prepackaged. Also, along with the Nittany Lion Inn and the Penn Stater, they have donated perishable food items to the Central PA Food Bank and the State College Area School District, which is still providing meals to students in need. They are also donating non-perishables to Lion’s Pantry. Hard not to be proud of a team that, in the midst of an operational challenge, takes the steps to deliver food to the growing number of students and residents with food insecurity.
With the disruption and uncertainty caused by COVID-19, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) continues to be open for business. Students simply need to call to get started. The Student Affairs IT staff outfitted 52 CAPS professionals in a three-day period to work at home, while still adhering to myriad health protocols and privacy standards that are mandated by the state and federal government. It was a Herculean task according to CAPS Senior Director Ben Locke, but an essential one given that last week they supported 200 students, and they expect many more to come.
The Office of Physical Plant has about 200 staff members working on campus across all shifts (24/7) to ensure that utilities are fully operational, providing for essential facility support (emergency repairs, custodial, parts, etc.), and environmental health and safety. These individuals are supporting the systems required to maintain the health of thousands of animals, on campus housing, and of course University Health Services.
Speaking of animals, spring is birthing season in our barns. In the horse barns alone, eight foals have been delivered and they expect another 13. A team of six students and three faculty and staff are caring for all the horses, with the added complexity of foaling season and adhering to human health protocols. Since they are very short staffed, they’re relying on 24/7 remote monitoring of the mares by students and alumni who know the signs of impending delivery. Those monitoring can then alert the on-site students and staff to tend to the animals as needed. Although it’s less than ideal, Brian Egan, assistant teaching professor of equine science, noted it’s the only sustainable way to get through the spring.
Finally, Penn State is working with Mount Nittany Health to turn over a parking garage for drive-up virus testing if the case load becomes difficult to handle. To keep up with rapidly changing recommendations and requirements, Penn State is coordinating with officials from communities across the Commonwealth. We have been in constant contact with emergency managers, health care professionals, experienced community partners, as well as the school district and University officials to exchange information and identify resources as part of our effort to support our communities.
In closing, please know that I’m thinking about all of you — sharing the stress caused by COVID-19 and the struggles related to conducting business in the new remote environment. Eventually this period of social distancing and isolation will pass, and you will again return to your offices, classrooms, labs and studios. Until then, thank you for carrying on the “We Are” sense of community online and in your own homes. Penn State’s community has never been anchored to a particular place — it’s in the heart of every Nittany Lion. Together we will weather this virus and its repercussions, and together we will be a stronger Nittany Nation. Take care of yourselves, your family, friends and neighbors. And remember, we want to hear your stories! In the next few weeks, we will be showcasing Penn Staters coming together in new and amazing ways to overcome the collective challenges faced by our communities, so send your stories to https://news.psu.edu/WeAre. Thank you for all you do!