Departments of Education & Health Strongly Encourage Colleges, Universities to Consider Delaying Bringing Students Back to Campus

Teenage girl with headphones having online school class at homeHARRISBURG, Pa. – With modeling projecting COVID-19 related hospitalizations could peak in January and February, the departments of Health and Education are urging colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education to use virtual instruction to the maximum extent feasible and consider the delay of students returning to their campuses for the traditional start date for spring semester.

“We are seeing an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and these trends are expected to worsen in January at the time when students normally return to campus,” said Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega. “Colleges and universities play a critical role in mitigating​ the spread of COVID-19 and creating safe learning environments for students. By delaying students’ return to campus, our institutions of higher learning can help slow the spread of the virus, help businesses to remain open, and protect regional health care systems.”

When hospitals are overwhelmed, it is not only COVID-19 patients who will suffer. A lack of hospital beds and enough hospital staff would cause a decrease in care for many patients, including college students whose health care is in the hands of their college communities. Care may be unrelated to COVID-19.

“Our current infection of COVID-19 is placing a significant strain on our hospital capacity and is a reminder to us all of our role in protecting our health care system,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “Our hospitalizations are more than double what they were in the spring and more than one-third of all ICU beds in the state are being used by COVID-19 patients. We know COVID-19 does not discriminate and is affecting every county in the commonwealth. This virus knows no bounds and it is affecting all Pennsylvanians, no matter your race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, or whether you live in a rural, suburban, or urban area.”

While Pennsylvania is already experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, modeling projects the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths will not peak until January and February. The pandemic has worsened since students returned to campus in the fall with the number of new daily cases approximately ten times higher than in September.

Crowded campuses have been shown to spread the virus. For example, the number of cases among 19 to 24-year-olds in northcentral Pennsylvania spiked from 7 percent in April, when students were not on campus, to 69 percent in September, and in the northeast from 6 percent in April to 40 percent in September. Campuses are urged to evaluate their policies and circumstances and ensure the safety of their on-campus population while also promoting strong mitigation measures for off-campus students.

The departments of Health and Education issued guidance for testing and contract tracing this fall to help colleges and universities protect students, faculty, staff, and their communities from COVID-19 and slow the spread of the virus. Along with their health and safety planning, colleges and universities are encouraged to continue to be diligent in their spring planning.


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