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Strengthening town-gown relationships during COVID-19

An academic year like no other begins soon at Williamsport’s two colleges.

Pennsylvania College of Technology will resume in-person instruction when its Fall 2020 semester launches Aug. 17. Across town at Lycoming College, which similarly intends to deliver in-person education to new and returning students, fall classes begin Aug. 20.

As presidents of our respective institutions — one, a public college of applied technology, the other a private liberal arts and sciences institution — we are fully committed to honoring our educational obligations while also prioritizing the health and well-being of our students, faculty, staff and visitors, as well as the Williamsport community.

But we have an additional, equally vital obligation. As we strive to satisfy our individual missions, we must not — we will not — lose sight of the essential economic and societal roles we play in the communities in which we live, work and play. We stand ready to do whatever is needed to instill confidence and a sense of security in the residents, employees, business owners and others in the city and region as we begin operations anew.

When governmental guidance ended in-person higher education in spring, Penn College rapidly switched to remote delivery, a daunting task when your hallmark is hands-on learning with required lab and clinical components for so many majors. Completing 93 percent of coursework was a testament to the resourcefulness of our faculty and students. In late July, a few hundred students returned to campus to satisfy their remaining in-person obligations. The effort served as a dry run for the fall semester.

Safeguards aiding our plans include rigorous protocols for prevention, mitigation, testing and reporting, use of personal protective equipment, and regular cleaning and disinfecting of campus. Specific details are on Penn College’s COVID-19 website, https://www.pct.edu/covid-19, which features a dashboard with up-to-date reporting of campus coronavirus cases and tests performed. The site also compiles relevant guidelines and resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. We are fortunate, as well, to have access to UPMC Susquehanna’s robust health care resources.

We communicate regularly with students, parents, employees and visitors about our expectations for masking, social distancing, temperature-taking, symptom monitoring and reporting, and all students and employees are asked to endorse a commitment to care for the community.

On the east side of the city, Lycoming College also made the difficult decision to suspend face-to-face instruction in March and shift to a remote learning environment. As a residential liberal arts and sciences college, we recognize the educational impact our learning community promotes and the ways in which it supports students in the classroom, as well as in their personal and professional pursuits.

With a goal of resuming residential education in the fall semester, Lycoming’s faculty and administration have spent countless hours planning — reimagining our campus in a manner that prioritizes the health and well-being of students, faculty, staff and the Williamsport community. New health and safety measures, including face coverings, distancing, daily temperature checks, stringent cleaning protocols and more, were developed using guidance from the CDC, Pennsylvania Department of Education and UPMC’s department of infectious disease. More information is on our website at https://www.lycoming.edu/return-to-campus/.

We have communicated to our community that the fall semester will require that we adapt our normal behaviors in order to benefit from the highly impactful learning environment that is created when we gather together as a community. Our Social Compact, which all students, faculty and staff will follow, reminds us to put others before ourselves for a successful semester on campus.

Neither college will enjoy athletic competition this fall. Neither will allow for large-group gatherings on campus or many of the activities epitomizing the full college experience that so many students seek; we will, however, be creative in offering an array of socially distanced alternatives. College-sponsored travel will be severely restricted.

Both colleges benefit from factors differentiating us from higher-education institutions in larger metropolitan centers. Lycoming County’s location has helped to keep its COVID-19 case numbers well below those in the southeast, southcentral and western portions of Pennsylvania, not to mention the hotspots emerging in other states.

While we have planned for seemingly every eventuality, if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s that more surprises are bound to arise, and evolving governmental guidance will compel us to regroup again to control the rate of transmission.

We know, too, how fundamental it is to have students support our reopening plans and comply with restrictions that run counter to the style of social engagement that young adults crave. All of our best efforts could be derailed if they surrender to instinct and flout the best guidance. Effective communication will be crucial as we encourage students to honor the social contract and reject behaviors that jeopardize others on campus and in our surrounding communities.

We promise to be as transparent as possible as we confront the challenges that still loom, and we encourage your input as we proceed. It will take a focused effort — and no small amount of ingenuity — to get through this, but we are confident it can be done if we all work together.

Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour is president of Pennsylvania College of Technology. Dr. Kent C. Trachte is president of Lycoming College.

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