'When we adapt, we just do better'

Penn State Great Valley spent the summer working toward a safe return to campus for the fall 2020 semester. Modified classroom setups, protective plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizing stations, regular cleaning and disinfecting, and signage promoting social distancing are among some of the measures being taken to ensure the health and safety of students and employees.

In late June, Ted Hartz, assistant director of business services, began working with the conference services team to create diagrams of each classroom to determine occupancy and how to rearrange furniture.

Hartz and the tech services team then cleaned and sanitized every room scheduled to be used for classes and rearranged the rooms’ setup to ensure social distancing would be maintained. Rather than tape off furniture that couldn’t be used, Hartz moved extra chairs and tables to unused rooms.

“We took a couple of other rooms off of the availability list and those are our furniture storage rooms,” Hartz said. “We took every other chair into those rooms so the classrooms are ready. … If we don’t have a chair there, students are not going to sit there.”

JoAnn Kelly, director of enrollment management and student services, headed a committee focused on classroom planning.

“We talked about the occupancy, what each classroom could handle, and monitored enrollments to see how large our classes would be to determine whether or not we could house classes in particular rooms,” Kelly said.

As the start of the fall semester neared, the group tested the technology in the rooms and scheduled sessions for the faculty to test the new equipment and get comfortable with the modified layout and class format.

Kelly also examined class schedules to ensure all new international students had at least one class with an in-person element, per visa requirements.

“Looking at the curriculum and looking at how the courses were being offered, it’s just like detective work,” Kelly said. “I had to review them one by one.”

To support the University’s testing and contact tracing protocols directed by the COVID-19 Operations Control Center, Kelly was designated case manager for Great Valley. Case managers reach out to students in isolation or quarantine on a daily or as-needed basis to provide support, as well as notify faculty if a student is not permitted to attend class.

Kelly is also responsible for following up with Great Valley students selected for surveillance testing.

Minyoung Cheong, assistant professor of management and organization, had considered teaching exclusively online for the fall semester, but decided returning to in-person teaching was important.

“In situation like this, we should be equipped with the ‘three A’s’ mindset,” Cheong said. “The first A is ‘Act.’ … You don’t have to overreact or underreact. Just act. Then, next A is ‘Admit.’ We all know this is our first time to face this situation. … If we don’t admit, then we cannot move forward. The final A is ‘Adapt’ – your behavioral, psychological, physiological adaptations, and also organizational adaptations. In order to have a good recovery from this period of organizational injury, we have to have these three A’s in mind.”

So far, a little under half of the students in Cheong’s class have attended an in-person session. Adrian Barb, associate professor of information science, has had a similar experience, with about half of his students attending in-person.

“I was very happy that I wasn’t going to teach to an empty class,” Barb said. “They knew their routine and that’s impressive. They keep their distance. They keep their masks on.”

Every student received two cloth masks and seven disposable masks on the first night of class; instructors also received PPE bags comprised of sanitizer, cloth masks, disposable masks, and gloves.

“Returning to campus during these trying times is a unique experience, and I wanted to convey my appreciation for the fact that Penn State has not switched to online-only,” said Miguel Garcia, a graduate student in Barb’s class. “The mixed-mode format is a solid compromise compared to what some other schools are doing, since we are able to preserve some of the value of face-to-face learning that cannot be captured by other methods. … I look forward to someday (hopefully soon) returning to normal classes.”

Garcia’s in-person classmates echoed his sentiments.

“I really wanted to have face-to-face classes,” said graduate student Cheng-Yi Tsai. “If everything is online, it just loses the meaning of interactions with teachers and classmates, and I believe connections with people are very important besides [classroom] knowledge.”

Although simultaneously teaching to in-person and remote students can be challenging, both Barb and Cheong were glad to return to the classroom.

“We had a mountain of help,” Barb said. “Overall, it’s different, but people are trying. They’re really, really trying to make sure that we’re doing fine with everything.”

“I don’t think it’s going to get easier, but we are going to get better,” Cheong said. “That’s the good part. I don’t think this can be easy, but when we adapt, we just do better.”