Overhauling Penn State’s Spring 2022 Semester Plan

Overhauling Penn State’s Spring 2022 Semester Plan

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Why this petition matters

**Since collected signatures cannot be shown properly on Change.org, we officially moved this petition to Google Forms: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe7Um7Nq8QawuXVFZQAvOXabp3vKb9PKDMvtHpn4jbZLgA4Ug/viewform**

Dear Members from Penn State, State College, and Commonwealth Community, 

The fast spread of the Omicron variant, as well as the evolving COVID-19 situation worldwide, has triggered numerous issues that impact the well-being of individuals across the globe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this variant has accounted for more than 58% of US COVID-19 infections in the week ending Dec. 25 [1]. Meanwhile, this number could be substantially underestimated due to asymptomatic infections.

While the worldwide surge in positivity has not yet reached its peak, Penn State announced its plan to start the spring 2022 semester in-person [2]. Following the holiday breaks and return-to-campus, we anticipate an increasing number of positive cases, which can further induce lots of uncertainties of Omicron (and potentially new variants) and subsequently pose critical threats to the health and well-being of our community. 

We ask that Penn State make necessary adjustments to its plan [2], in order to truly ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all members from Penn State and its surrounding communities. In particular, we urge the University to consider the following alternatives: 

  • Start the spring 2022 semester with remote learning and resume in-person instruction in a cautious and gradual manner, similar to the plan of a variety of peer institutions, such as most campuses within the University of California system, Stanford University, Northwestern University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Miami, and Emory University; or
  • Postpone the beginning of the spring 2022 semester, similar to the action of a number of peer institutions (i.e., Howard, Princeton, and Syracuse), while closely monitoring pandemic conditions and resuming the semester with online, in-person, or hybrid modes, if permitted.

The two proposed plans possess the following benefits:

  • To allow the community to pass the nationwide Omicron variant peak safely, which is expected to take place in January 2022 [3,4];
  • To give the entire community, including students, employees, and local residents more time to settle in, monitor the situation, and make necessary preparations (e.g., obtaining a booster shot) for any unforeseen circumstances; and
  • To maximize instructional and learning flexibility while minimizing disruptions in the students’ educational experiences.

More critically, the announced University’s plan for the spring 2022 semester raises a variety of issues, concerns, and questions: 

  • The current plan may pose an exceptional threat to unvaccinated students, employees, and local community members. According to Penn State's COVID-19 dashboard (University Park) [5], students and employees have a high vaccination rate, i.e., 89.8% and 90.0%, respectively. However, the current plan will affect individuals who may not be able to be vaccinated due to medical exemptions or special circumstances. Moreover, the current Centre County vaccination rate is 59.6% [5], which is much lower than that of the main campus. As students who return to campus or State College from all over the country cannot be required to self-quarantine and are not required to get tested, the risk of transmission becomes naturally high. With the announced in-person plan, Centre County residents may have to face health and life-threatening difficulties with the highly contagious COVID-19 variants.
  • Full vaccination does not necessarily guarantee long-term vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 infections. Research has reported that vaccine effectiveness decreases with increasing time since vaccination [6], especially with the current transmissible variants such as Omicron and Delta [7]. While Penn State students and employees have been required to upload their vaccination records since April 2021 [8], it is possible that the effectiveness of the vaccine has gradually decreased given the eight-month time span. While Penn State has taken pride in the high vaccination rate among the university community [9], this pride cannot last if it fails to develop and implement consistent and long-term actions that prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of all university and community members.
  • Booster vaccination rate at Penn State and the overall booster effectiveness against the Omicron variants remain unclear. Booster shots are currently recommended but not mandatory for Penn State students and employees [10]. No data has been released by Penn State regarding students and employees who have been fully vaccinated and boosted. According to the CDC, only 39.1% of people from Centre County have been fully vaccinated with a booster [11]. Furthermore, the latest study has suggested much lower booster effectiveness against Omicron than those with other variants [12]; yet, more research data is still needed to reach a clearer and better understanding.
  • The current plan fails to align with Penn State’s claimed commitment to the health and safety of our community, as well as clear communication and transparent decision-making [9]. The most recent announcement vaguely describes the plan for spring 2022 semester as a decision made by the University leadership’s monitoring local hospital capacity, the spread of the Omicron variant, and local, state, and national pandemic conditions, as well as considering advice from Penn State’s COVID-19 Operations Control Center (COCC). In his most recent open letter to the community, meanwhile, Eric Barron has shared that the University’s “singular objective is, and always has been, the health and safety of our community. Our decisions have been driven by data, science and advice from medical professionals at a local, state and national level” [9]. However, the spring 2022 semester plan does not justify or align with this sound claim – in what way is the plan driven by data, science, and professional advice? What exactly is being shown or suggested by these sources? 

Taking the above into consideration, we demand the university to develop and implement alternative plans in order to fully enable and sustain a healthy and safe environment, as well as a meaningful educational experience for all students.

We should not be forced to choose between our education and our health. We believe that it is more prudent to make the adjustment immediately and give our community more time to plan and react.

Please sign this petition to support our proposed plans and/or urge the University to make changes to its current plan. Please also share this petition as widely as possible. We sincerely appreciate any possible help from you! Thank you for reading!



[1] CDC COVID Data Tracker – Variant Proportions. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#variant-proportions (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[2] Penn State to start semester in person, as planned. https://www.psu.edu/news/administration/story/penn-state-start-semester-person-planned/ (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[3] Potential Rapid Increase of Omicron Variant Infections in the United States. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/forecasting/mathematical-modeling-outbreak.html (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[4] Fauci predicts omicron Covid wave will peak in U.S. by end of January. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/29/fauci-predicts-omicron-covid-wave-will-peak-in-us-by-end-of-january-.html (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[5] Penn State COVID-19 dashboard. https://app.powerbi.com/view?r=eyJrIjoiNDY3NjhiMDItOWY0Mi00NzBmLWExNTAtZGIzNjdkMGI0OTM0IiwidCI6IjdjZjQ4ZDQ1LTNkZGItNDM4OS1hOWMxLWMxMTU1MjZlYjUyZSIsImMiOjF9 (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[6] Tartof, Sara Y., et al. "Effectiveness of mRNA BNT162b2 COVID-19 vaccine up to 6 months in a large integrated health system in the USA: a retrospective cohort study." The Lancet 398.10309 (2021): 1407-1416.

[7] Hansen, Christian Holm, et al. "Vaccine effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2 infection with the Omicron or Delta variants following a two-dose or booster BNT162b2 or mRNA-1273 vaccination series: A Danish cohort study." medRxiv (2021).

[8] Students urged to upload COVID-19 vaccination record through myUHS. https://www.psu.edu/news/campus-life/story/students-urged-upload-covid-19-vaccination-record-through-myuhs/ (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[9] An open letter to the Penn State community from President Barron. https://www.psu.edu/news/administration/story/open-letter-penn-state-community-president-barron/ (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[10] Penn State strongly recommends COVID-19 boosters to employees and students. https://www.psu.edu/news/administration/story/penn-state-strongly-recommends-covid-19-boosters-employees-and-students/ (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[11] CDC COVID Data Tracker – COVID-19 Integrated County View. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#county-view?list_select_state=Pennsylvania&data-type=&list_select_county=42027 (accessed 2 Jan 2022).

[12] Roessler, Annika, et al. "SARS-CoV-2 B. 1.1. 529 variant (Omicron) evades neutralization by sera from vaccinated and convalescent individuals." medRxiv (2021).

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