Before students returned to campus this fall, the slogan “Mask Up or Pack Up” was seen all over Penn State’s social media platforms, and on signs across campus and downtown. Many students, professors, and community members expected in-person classes to end far before Thanksgiving break, which would have sent home the students living on campus. To everyone’s surprise, this has yet to happen, despite high numbers of COVID-19 cases and ongoing partying.
In mid-September, State College was listed #2 on the New York Times for metro areas with the fastest rising cases on a population-adjusted basis. This #2 spot put our college town in the middle of Pennsylvania ahead of the New York City area, and other more populated cities in the United States.
According to the Penn State COVID-19 dashboard, there have been 3,646 positive cases within the student population at University Park, and 11 positive cases among faculty and staff members. What was previously a county with very few cases compared to the rest of the state, is now a hot spot in Pennsylvania. In Centre County, there have been 16 deaths as a result of the virus.
Even though there is no sign of Penn State students refraining from partying and gathering with large groups, the decisions made by the university do not seem to acknowledge the actions of students or reflect a cautious stance with the virus. Recently, it was announced that the White Out football game against Ohio State will be taking place at 7:30 pm on Halloween night. It is already likely that students will be partying for Halloween, so the game simply amplifies the likelihood of more parties and rising COVID-19 cases.
Students should be held responsible for their actions, but it was the decision of Penn State to bring students back to campus. No matter what, there are going to be students acting selfishly during this time. Penn State can continue to send out statements and pleas to students about keeping their circles small and wearing masks, but this oftentimes does not make students think twice about their actions.
If Penn State was serious about statements such as “Our community. Our responsibility,” there would be more serious actions taken by the university itself, instead of it being left to the students to make the right decisions. Although it is an unfortunate reality, students are not going to stop partying and seeing their friends unless there are real policy changes, or until students are sent home. Many students do not care or do not understand the serious implications this virus can have on the community, so they will continue to act in their own self-interest.
This past weekend, the away game at Indiana University showed the impact the Penn State football games, despite them being remote, can have on the number of gatherings taking place. Multiple photos and videos of giant groups of people at the Rise and the Here apartments on game day surfaced on social media, receiving criticism from students, faculty and staff, and members of the State College community.
These photos and videos show students packed into common areas at these apartment buildings, with no masks insight. Although these buildings are not directly affiliated with the university, these gatherings are still breaking the Borough of State College policies. The lack of social distancing is clearly not appropriate or safe for students and residents of Centre County.
“It really upsets me as a townie that my fellow students feel comfortable coming and partying knowing the effects of their actions. My grandma lives less than 5 minutes from downtown. I understand the urge to party but think about someone other than yourselves for a bit,” said Katie Ache, Penn State sophomore.
It’s no secret that students have been partying all semester. At the beginning of the school year, videos surfaced of freshmen students gathering in East Halls without masks or social distancing. After the backlash from the actions of those students, many expected Penn State to send students home. There was even a petition formed for just freshman students to be sent home from the dorms. These latest outrageous pictures and videos from off-campus housing complexes continue to raise an important question. Is Penn State staying true to its “Mask Up or Pack Up” slogan?
Whether it’s about money, expectations, or some other unknown reason, Penn State seems to be all talk and no action. Yes—some students and faculty members are enjoying the normalcy that comes with in-person classes and activities, but this comes with a price. There is no way to control such a large population of students, especially when many do not understand or care about the serious consequences their actions can have.
Many students seem to view State College as their personal playground, neglecting the fact that it is also a regular community with residents of all ages. Even though there is a high survival rate for people in the college-age group, students could pass it on to older people within the community, or people who are generally more at risk.
Other universities across the United States have taken different actions to deal with the ongoing spread of COVID-19. Smaller schools such as Bates College in Maine have implemented mandatory testing for students, faculty, and staff twice a week. Other large universities have chosen to send students home, or have refrained from resuming in-person classes this semester.
UNC Chapel Hill sent students home during the first week of classes in August, after 135 students tested positive. Currently, there are 235 active cases at University Park, but no sign of any students being sent home. During the week of September 18 to September 24, there were 666 positive cases from on-demand testing, and 28 positive cases from random testing. This positive case count is more than triple what UNC Chapel Hill reported during their first week of classes when students were sent home.
With less than a month left before Penn State goes remote, it is extremely unlikely that students will be forced to unexpectedly “pack up” and head home before the intended move out period. Halloween, game days, and the weekends before break will be critical for COVID-19 numbers.
In these next few weeks, be mindful of your actions. Hold yourself and others accountable, and remember that State College is not just a college town. Treat this community the way you would treat your own. We all want to enjoy our college experience, but it’s important to remember that this virus is bigger than ourselves. By making the choice to stay home from parties on the weekend, it could save the life of someone else. “Mask Up or Pack Up” may not be the reality, so take it into your own hands to do the right thing.
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