Kutztown University looks to New Jersey to stem declining enrollment

Dr. Kenneth S. Hawkinson, Kutztown University president, shown in a file photo, was the target of a meeting Thursday night by those who believe he has answers to give on the college's handling of its COVID-19 outbreak.

Dr. Kenneth S. Hawkinson, Kutztown University president, is the target of a public campaign by critics of the college’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

In what was cast as a virtual public meeting Thursday evening on Zoom and Facebook Live, organizers showed an empty chair with Hawkinson’s name on it.

Karen Feridun, a Kutztown alumna and resident of the borough of Kutztown, said concerned citizens have been frustrated by Hawkinson’s refusal of a Sept. 21 request to meet with the group.

“We have questions, and he isn’t speaking to us,” said Feridun, one of the organizers of the virtual meeting.

On Thursday, the university released a written statement that reads, in part:

“The president has met with numerous groups since the beginning of the academic year, and we have responded to countless personal inquiries, invited comments at our public meeting of the council of trustees and communicated regularly through our various media platforms and external media. Organizers of this meeting have been among those we personally and publicly addressed on multiple occasions.”

The pressure on Hawkinson comes amid concern over “superspreader” events held by students living in off-campus housing.

In the week following Labor Day, 70 students living off campus tested positive for coronavirus, ostensibly due to partying held in August, the college said at the time.

The outbreak has dwindled, with only eight new cases reported this week, according to the KU online dashboard. KU reported last month that about 1,000 students had left campus, costing the university more than $3 million in refunds.

Overall, the dashboard shows 263 recoveries, and last month the college described the students' symptoms as mostly like a bad cold.

KU has held mostly online-only courses. But, some of the courses are a mix of online and in-person. A small percentage of the courses are in-person only.  

The last day for in-person classes is Nov. 20, when students leave for Thanksgiving break. Students will not return to the university after Thanksgiving, and all classes will be virtual for the final weeks of the fall semester before the holiday break, the school has said.

One of the unknowns, Feridun said, is whether in-person instruction will resume when students return to campus for the spring semester in January.

West Chester University announced this week that its spring semester will be conducted virtually. So far, it is the only one of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to go fully virtual.

The Zoom meeting’s moderator, Marilyn Fox, put the question directly to Hawkinson: Does Kutztown University plan to go totally virtual in spring?

What is the acceptable number of cases, she asked, before the university would decide to go virtual?

Matt Santos, vice president for university relations, said Kutztown has yet to make a decision on how the spring semester will be conducted.

Santos explained to the Reading Eagle last month that there were other considerations beyond the number of cases, such as available space for isolation and how well the health office could handle the cases.

Ann Lemon, a member of Kutztown’s art faculty, urged the university to decide on whether to go virtual in spring as soon as possible.

Matthieu Maier, who rooms with five other students on campus, said it’s difficult to determine when another student has the virus or is suffering from some other illness.

In one instance, he said, several other students went home thinking they were exposed to someone with the virus. It turned out the student did not have it.

Several participants asked for a breakdown of where students lived.

Kutztown’s total enrollment is just under 7,900, Santos said. About 2,100 students live on campus, some 500 in Kutztown and 900 in other municipalities. The balance, around 4,400, are commuter students.

Feridun suggested a breakdown by ZIP code would help pinpoint where the infection was concentrated.

The state Department of Health provides a breakdown by ZIP codes that showed 19530, Kutztown, with 261 cases on Thursday. Before the outbreak the ZIP code had 77. It's unclear where other cases have registered.

Due largely to concern over partying in off-campus housing, Kutztown Borough Council adopted an ordinance last month that limited gatherings to 10 unrelated people in borough residences.

The controversial measure, adopted on a 4-2 vote, bolstered the ability of borough police to limit off-campus partying.

Council delayed implementation of the provision, however, after a federal judge ruled that Gov. Tom Wolf had exceeded his authority in mandating restrictions aimed at controlling the pandemic.

The Kutztown Community Partnership, a nonprofit whose goals include economic revitalization, noted that the borough, schools and businesses have taken measures to combat COVID-19 since spring.

“Kutztown, like all communities, has a difficult task of maintaining a safe quality of life while balancing the needs of its residents, businesses, schools and organizations,” the agency said in a written statement issued Thursday. “Despite unpredictable and difficult circumstances, we feel Kutztown offers a safe place for residents and visitors to live, work, shop and eat.”

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