Penn State Informs Students ‘Be Prepared to Alter Plans’ for Spring Semester

Penn State intends to start the spring semester in person as planned, but with increasing local hospitalizations remaining high and uncertainty created by the omicron variant of COVID-19, university officials said that University Park community members should “be prepared to alter plans” if it becomes necessary to start classes remotely.

“Our overriding concern remains the health and safety of our campus and local community,” Penn State President Eric Barron said in a statement. “As I have said throughout the pandemic, the University has developed a number of on-ramps and off-ramps to address situations that may emerge. We fully expect to start the spring semester as planned with in-person classes and activities, but we also wanted to let the University Park campus community know that we are continuing to monitor local conditions and are prepared to alter return plans for the semester if deemed necessary.”

The university plans to provide an update on Dec. 30. Spring semester classes begin on Jan. 10.

Last December, Penn State announced that classes for the 2021 spring semester would begin remotely before returning to in-person in February as testing positivity rates, total cases and local hospitalizations climbed.

This year, the university and local community face some similar circumstances, though on campus, with nearly 89.8% of students and 90% of employees vaccinated, case rates have been much lower.

But the area has seen a surge in COVID-19 transmission that has placed a continuing and growing strain on Mount Medical Center and other regional health systems.

Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses are expected to begin the spring semester in person because of their “smaller student populations and greater regional health care capacity,” according to a university release.

Centre County’s only hospital, Mount Nittany Medical Center is seeing its highest COVID inpatient levels of the entire pandemic. At midnight on Tuesday, the medical center had 76 COVID inpatients, the most of any point during the pandemic, and its average daily census of 61 COVID inpatients this month eclipses the previous high of 49 in December 2020.

The hospital also has seen a steep rise in emergency department visits. For about 12 hours between Dec. 2-3, Mount Nittany asked ambulances to divert to other hospitals outside the county because of the overwhelming number of ER patients, a previously unprecedented move for the medical center.

“Our region’s health systems are being severely impacted by the surge of COVID-19 as a result of the transmission that is happening in our communities,” Dr. Upendra Thaker, MNMC’s chief medical officer, said last week. “We want everyone to know this kind of pressure on healthcare services severely impacts access to much needed medical services. This situation will not begin to improve until community transmission of the virus falls. We are doing everything we can do. We continue to ask that everyone who is eligible get vaccinated, avoid large indoor gatherings, social distance and hand wash.”

The “uneven spread” of the omicron variant of the virus also raised concern for university officials.