Because the Covid-19 wave spiked, Pennsylvania faculties pushed to delay pupil returns

Pennsylvania’s incumbent Education Secretary Noe Ortega on Wednesday called on colleges and universities to postpone the start of their spring semester.

Ortega also suggested that colleges and universities use virtual teaching as much as possible.

“We are seeing an alarming increase in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, and these trends are expected to worsen in January when students normally return to campus,” Ortega said. “By delaying the return of students to campus, our universities can help slow the spread of the virus, help businesses stay open, and protect regional health systems.”

Ortega’s guidance came a week after Mary Finger, president of Seton Hill University, announced that Greensburg University would postpone the start of its spring semester, which was originally scheduled to start January 19, to February 2.

Finger said student safety is a major consideration at the university, which has approximately 2,200 students enrolled. It found that in recent reports, community transmission of Covid-19 by the Westmoreland County community was about five times what was “significant spread” in a community.

“Public health experts warn that this surge will continue during and after the Christmas and New Years celebrations, peaking in mid-January,” Finger said in a letter to the university community.

Seton Hills rollback reflected a rollback that Carnegie Mellon University announced in late September when it postponed the start of the spring semester on its Pittsburgh campus to February 1 to avoid having students on campus at a time to the flu and Covid-19 summit are expected.

Like Seton Hill and Carnegie Mellon, many colleges and universities have canceled the spring break. At the University of Pittsburgh, which plans to offer in-person and online classes, classes begin January 19 with no spring break. Officials at Saint Vincent College at Unity, which also offers in-person and online courses, announced plans to move the start of the spring semester to January 25 and cancel the spring break.

“However, these plans are under constant review and, given the ever-changing challenges of the pandemic, our government stands ready to reassess the situation as the circumstances suggest,” said Jim Berger, spokesman for Saint Vincent.

Although local colleges and universities had no advance notice of Ortega’s new guidelines, most have planned for the coming year to keep students safe.

Duquesne University spokesman Gabe Welsch said the semester would start January 21. Like Pitt, Duquesne worked with a hybrid system this fall.

“So if we had to go online first, we could do that,” said Welsch.

In addition, Duquesne announced that all students who want to be on campus in the spring semester will have to take a coronavirus test and get a negative result no earlier than five days before returning to campus.

At California University of Pennsylvania, which decided to go almost entirely online this fall, officials announced plans to bring some students back to Washington County’s campus this spring and offer online and in-person courses.

Cal U spokeswoman Christine Kindl said classes begin Jan. 25 and will continue with no spring break.

“Although we monitor things and keep an eye on the situation,” said Kindl.

State officials said Pennsylvania’s experience of dormitories this fall, coupled with the continued surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, prompted the additional guidelines for the coming semester.

Epidemiological models suggest that the surge in infections will not peak until January and February. And state officials said the number of new daily cases has increased ten-fold since students returned to campus in the fall.

Ortega said the number of cases among 19- to 24-year-olds in north central Pennsylvania rose from 7% in April when students were off campus to 69% in September. and in the northeast from 6% in April to 40% in September.

At Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where classes are due to resume on Jan. 19 with no spring break regulations, officials believe their plans are flexible enough to meet state guidelines.

Back in Seton Hill, where all students were invited back to campus last fall, university spokeswoman Jennifer Reeger said the school is adding more surveillance tests to ensure the safety of staff and students.

Deb Erdley is a contributor to Tribune Review. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, derdley@triblive.com, or on Twitter.

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