The leader of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education expressed support Friday of Kutztown University's COVID-19 reopening and asked those questioning it to temper their rhetoric.
State system Chancellor Dr. Daniel Greenstein took part in a virtual forum at Kutztown, the final of 14 online visits he has made this fall to the schools in the system. Much of the discussion revolved around systemwide issues, like plans to "right-size" schools, integrate services between schools and diversity efforts.
But during a lengthy question-and-answer session, a handful of KU faculty and Kutztown Borough residents aired their dissatisfaction with the way the university opened this fall amid an ongoing pandemic and plans to move forward with in-person classes in the spring.
Lauren Voorhees, who said she has a child who is a senior at KU, began by asking Greenstein and KU President Kenneth Hawnkins how they plan to open the campus in the spring with Berks County currently on the cusp of a third wave of coronavirus.
Greenstain said the system will proceed the same way it has been, allowing schools to choose their own path.
"The rationale was, is, that our universities are incredibly differently situated," he said, adding that access to things like health care and testing vary across the state. "A one-size fits all was simply not an option."
Hawkinson said KU's plan for the fall and for the spring were crafted with care by an emergency management team. He said the plan has been working.
"And we've been successful, we're going to make it to Thanksgiving," he said.
KU opened up its campus this fall but also offered some online options for students. Hawkinson announced earlier this month the plan for the spring is the same.
Hawkinson said the university will continue to review its plan to figure out what has been working well and what needs to change.
"We will continue to update and adjust," he said. "I'm just delighted it's been successful."
Dan Speigel, a KU faculty member, took exception to Hawkinson's assessment.
"How many cases is too many?" he asked rhetorically. "I strongly disagree with the characterization of the term success."
As of Friday, Kutztown had reported a total of 345 cases of COVID-19, none of which is currently active.
Speigel said he wants KU to be open, but not at the cost of the health of students, staff and faculty.
Two borough residents also expressed concern about how the university has been handling the pandemic.
Warren Shaub, who said he is very involved with the community and attends borough council meetings, claimed the university has not engaged with the borough.
Hawkinson denied that claim, saying a school representative does take part in council meetings and that he has been in communication with the mayor.
Karen Feridun likewise accused Hawkinson and the university of not engaging with the community, saying questions and concerns go unanswered.
Hawkison retorted by saying he has had many conversations with people in the community and that all of the questions Feridun was referring to have been answered over and over again.
"There's only so many times I can answer the same questions," he said.
The chancellor, responding specifically to Speigel but also in general, provided a brief lecture chastising the tone of the discussion.
Greenstein said the pandemic is one of the biggest challenge universities have ever faced and it's being made worse because it's tearing people apart. He said everyone has his or her own idea of how best to respond, both at Kutztown and across the nation, and heated fights over who's right and who's wrong are damaging.
"As a country, we have chosen to allow this to further deepen the divides that exist across our country," he said. "It makes me feel profoundly sad as an American.
"What would make me even sadder would be to watch that discourse, that tone, play out at one of our universities."
During the back-and-forth between Hawkinson and Shaub, Greenfield again expressed dismay over the tenor of the interaction.
"I don't find debates like this super productive," he said of the testy exchange. "I'm going to encourage you guys to find another path."
Greefield said that no one has the ultimate answer to COVID-19, not even scientists and health experts. The best we can do is try to listen to each other and make the best choices we can, he said.
In that regard, he added, he's glad to lean on Hawkinson to make the tough decisions.
An ongoing dispute
Friday was not the first time Kutztown's reopening has been challenged.
A group of students, staff, alumni and community members circulated an online letter in early August criticizing the school's plans to reopen campus. Some members of the group held a protest just days before the start of the fall semester, claiming the university had not done enough to prepare.
Then, in the week following Labor Day, 70 students living off campus tested positive for the coronavirus. School officials said the positive tests were due to parties held in August.
The outbreak has dwindled, with only one new case reported this week, according to KU's online dashboard. The university reported last month that about 1,000 students had left campus, costing the university more than $3 million in refunds.
Overall, the dashboard shows 345 cases, all of which are identified as recovered. Last month the college described the students' symptoms as mostly like a bad cold.
Earlier this month a virtual town hall was held by a group concerned with Kutztown's handling of the pandemic. Hawkinson was invited to take part, but did not attend.