A university reopened, COVID spiked, and now a wary college town wonders: What’s next?

Listen 5:29
A look down Main Street in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

A look down Main Street in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

If not for the Budweiser poster being used as a curtain, the shredded boxspring on the porch, and the pillows stuffed into the windows — the house down the street from Denise Bosler and Warren Shaub could be considered handsome.

In a prior life, the three-story home in Kutztown, Pennsylvania might have looked pristine, the pride of some growing family.

Today, the aging Victorian — with its beige paint and maroon shutters — looks like a cross between Bluto’s place in Animal House and a haunted mansion in Scooby Doo. The renters are students at nearby Kutztown University and members of an unofficial fraternity.

Since the university reopened in August, Bosler, 46, says she’s watched streams of students file in and out.

“Hordes and hordes,” said Bosler, a Kutztown grad who now teaches at the university and heads the Communication Design Department. “When I say hordes I mean 20 at a time. And I can count them — with no masks.”

Denise Bosler, department chair of Communication Design at Kutztown University, is photographed at her home just blocks away from the campus in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Bosler and Shaub say the house — which they jokingly call “the Castle” — has been a party spot for years.

“The percentage of students who are taking it very seriously are way higher than the ones that aren’t,” said Bosler. “Unfortunately, the ones that aren’t are the ones that are making it very difficult for the rest of us.”

Kutztown University, a college of about 8,000 students in Pennsylvania’s state-run system, made the fraught decision to open its campus this fall. Since then, it’s become a coronavirus hotspot. In about a month, the university logged 280 positive cases among students and another three among staff.

Locals now wonder — nervously — if the virus will spread from the students to the year-round residents.

“It starts to fall like dominos,” said Bosler. “That’s what I think people are really worried about.”

Kutztown University has been seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases among students on the campus in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Almost everyone in Kutztown — a 5,000-person borough located about halfway between Reading and Allentown — blames the outbreak on group houses like “the Castle.” Off-campus housing is one of the town’s economic pillars, but also the perfect place for students — free from university oversight — to mingle.

“Before, it was just STDs [being spread],” said Shaub, 43. “It certainly wasn’t a pandemic.”

The university’s return brought the possibility of economic revival at a time when local businesses — battered by the pandemic — need a lift. Quickly, these hopes collided with reality. At least four businesses closed recently because employees tested positive for COVID-19. Thousands of students have already left town as the campus increasingly goes into lockdown mode.

All of this comes at a time when the town feels its economic ties to the university fraying. The college is losing enrollment, all while trying to capture a larger share of the dollars its students spend on food and housing. Business owners and landlords feel the pinch.

Before the pandemic, locals wondered if their town had grown dangerously dependent on the university. Faintly, in the background, a question flickered: What would this place look like without Kutztown University?

A sign advertising hand sanitizer hangs inside De Turk Hardware on Main Street in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

It’s a question that simmers in many Pennsylvania college towns. The state system — facing a demographic cliffis losing enrollment. There’s talk of campus consolidation, or even potential closures. COVID-19 raised the specter of a temporary college shutdown — and in doing so underscored the long-term fears Kutztown, and communities like it, now face.

“We know we need the university,” said Bosler. “We survive without them. But it’s better with them.”

Firefly Bookstore co-owner Matthew Williams packs up a book to ship to a customer as it has become a big part of the business due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent spike in cases due to the return of students to nearby Kutztown University. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

An ‘inevitable’ outbreak

“Inevitable” is the word that comes up most when locals discuss the outbreak at Kutztown.

“The reality is this was probably inevitable,” said Matthew Williams, 49, who co-owns Firefly Bookstore, just off campus.

Like many colleges, Kutztown signaled its intention to reopen over the summer. Unlike some of its peers, it actually followed through.

Kutztown expected about 60% of its classes would be either fully in-person or partially in-person, said university spokesperson Matt Santos. Those numbers shifted, Santos said, as many local K-12 school districts opted to stay virtual and, as a result, more professors asked to move their classes online.

By move-in day in mid-August, about two-thirds of classes were fully remote — a number that has held steady.

The university expected 3,300 students to live on campus this semester — only about 500 fewer than the year before. But it offered a full housing and dining refund to students who left campus before early September. About a thousand students took Kutztown up on the offer and moved out, costing the university about $3.5 million in the process, said Santos, which is roughly 3% of its annual revenue.

Another 1,400 students live off-campus, but near the university — 500 of them in Kutztown itself and another 900 in apartments located in an adjoining borough.

The questions of why and how Kutztown reopened its campus are topics of intense speculation and conflict among faculty, students and neighbors.

Signage marks where students can sit in a lecture hall at the Academic Forum at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

The university’s critics say president Kenneth Hawkinson and the college’s trustees feared a student exodus if Kutztown went all-virtual, an anxiety heightened by the fact that Kutztown and other state schools in Pennsylvania are disproportionately dependent on tuition and fees. Driven by finances, they say, the university took a tunnel-vision approach to reopening.

“It was simply working backward from their desired conclusions and trying to make the facts fit,” said Dan Spiegel, 62, a Computer Science and Information Technology professor and a vocal critic of the school’s reopening plan.

Students are encouraged to get tested for COVID-19 if they’re feeling ill or have been in contact with someone who has the virus. But it’s a “self-policed” approach, said Santos, the university spokesperson.

Kutztown didn’t require students quarantine or get tested upon arrival, isn’t testing students on a rolling basis, hasn’t sampled wastewater for traces of the virus, or gone into a two-week quarantine since cases started to emerge — all approaches used by other schools.

Bloomsburg University — the only school in the state system to suffer a larger outbreak than Kutztown — quickly went online after cases spiked. Kutztown soldiers on.

“Their plan has so many holes in it that they make swiss cheese look like granite,” said Spiegel.

Santos admits that the college faced financial pressure to reopen, though he denies it was the only reason or that it clouded the school’s judgment.

“It’s a little more in-depth than it was just a financial decision,” said Santos. “Finances certainly play a part.”

So too did the earnest desires of many students to have an on-campus experience. Learning online takes a mental toll, and it disadvantages students who don’t have reliable internet.

“I don’t have the best home life,” said Agostino D’Ancona, a Kutztown senior and the student body president. “If I didn’t come back to this town, I probably wouldn’t graduate.”

“There are other students with the same background, same problems, who needed [this] environment to learn,” he added. “They needed the technology. They needed the resources — just to even go through class.”

Also, Santos said, the university had to think of the town. What would another semester of online learning do to the businesses that depend on students and faculty?

“The borough is certainly part of the overall thought process and reasons why you can defend making the effort and trying,” Santos said.

A look down Main Street in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

‘Like a ghost town’

Kutztown’s Main Street runs uphill toward the college. The campus looms — literally and metaphorically — over the town.

Compared to the Main Streets in many small Pennsylvania towns that have suffered through deindustrialization and population loss, Kutztown’s commercial corridor remains attractive and vibrant. The university’s role in that vitality is obvious. There’s a brewery, a head shop, two tattoo parlors, a pair of pizza joints and a smattering of cafes.

Lidia Leiva, 33, opened Donut Lover’s Boom on Main Street last August, taking over a space that belonged to another donut shop for years. An immigrant from Guatemala, Leiva used savings earned at a nearby factory to open the store with her wife. Business dried up when Kutztown students went home in March to finish the spring semester online.

“When they’re gone, this is like a ghost town,” said Leiva.

Lidia Leiva is the owner of Donut Lover’s Boom in Kutztown. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Even if there are fewer students than a normal semester, their return this fall has been a much-needed lifeline for Leiva’s new business.

Without the college students, Leiva said, “We would have probably had to shut down, for I don’t know how long. Maybe forever.”

The coronavirus arrived at a fragile moment for Kutztown’s business community. The university renovated its main dining hall in 2016, and recently added on-campus Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks franchises, giving students and their wallets fewer reasons to venture off campus.

“They’re trying to keep kids on campus longer so they don’t lose out on money,” said Jessica Symes, 23, a Kutztown senior who works at Mamma’s Delight Pizza & Restaurant, a mainstay since the early 1980s.

Mamma’s used to have late-night hours during the school year to feed the crowds of hungry students who rumbled through town. Now, Symes said, they close at 10 p.m.

Jessica Symes, a senior at Kutztown University, talks about the experience of students coming back to campus while working at Mamma’s Delight Pizza Restaurant in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

The businesses still want the students — even need them — but many proprietors say it’s a fight for a dwindling demographic.

One longtime business owner on Main Street summed it up neatly: “I’m glad I’m at the end of my career and not the beginning.”

A college town’s housing crisis

Nowhere is this shift more obvious than in the town’s housing market.

As Kutztown’s enrollment grew through the 1990s and early 2000s, landlords chopped up the borough’s row homes into student apartments. It turned out to be a short-sighted bet.

After peaking at 10,700 in 2010, Kutztown’s enrollment — like that of the state system overall — has steadily declined. This year, the school has a headcount of about 7,800 — a 27% decline in one decade.

While the housing pie shrunk, competition grew. Within the last five years, Kutztown required most first- and second-year students to live on campus, and the share of students living in the dorms has crept up as a result. Meanwhile, new apartment complexes popped up just outside town in Maxatawny Township, offering the kind of amenities that the old row homes in Kutztown borough can’t match.

Warren Shaub holds plants he has been growing during the COVID-19 pandemic in the yard of his home, which is just blocks away from the campus of Kutztown University, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Increasingly, what’s left in town, said Kutztown resident Warren Shaub, are places like “the Castle” that are “appealing to people who just want to trash them.”

That’s if anyone wants the houses at all.

Even before the pandemic, the rental vacancy rate in Kutztown was 13%, according to the US Census. That’s about double the national average.

A new strategic plan developed for the town outlines, essentially, a pivot away from student housing and university dependence. It calls for stricter code enforcement to crack down on dilapidated properties and incentives for the “deconversion” of student housing.

It even proposes a new permitting process for the placement of “For Rent” signs to “manage perceptions about rental vacancies.”

For a town worried about perceptions of decline, a headline-grabbing viral outbreak hits hard. It’s causing some year-round residents to warily reevaluate the town’s relationship with the university.

Jan Crooker, 70, has lived in a house right along the campus’ edge since 1993, with student housing on either side of her.

“And I’ve never thought that was a bad thing,” said Crooker, whose husband taught for decades at Kutztown. “But it is a bad thing if they’re being exposed. Then we’re all exposed.”

Lifelong resident Rebecca Laincz, 49, the other co-owner of Firefly Bookstore, described her attitude toward the campus and the virus as “watchful.”

Firefly Bookstore co-owner Rebecca Laincz looks over online orders as they have become a big part of the business due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent spike in cases due to the return of students to nearby Kutztown University. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

She and her husband decided last week to do what the college hasn’t — go on hiatus for two weeks and hope the virus recedes. COVID hasn’t hit their store yet, and they want to make sure it stays that way as the all-important holiday season approaches.

“Before the end of the year we need to have a couple of good, solid months,” said her husband, Matthew Williams.

A new path forward?

Follow Main Street downhill, away from the college, and eventually the terrain flattens around a small bridge spanning the Saucony Creek. Just past the bridge, the road meets a lightly used stretch of railroad track lined with old factories and workshops.

Mayor Jim Schlegel, 70, can recite the history of each building.

Kutztown borough mayor Jim Schlegel talks about the experience of dealing with a spike in COVID-19 cases as Kutztown University welcomes students back to campus in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

He points to a red brick structure. That’s the defunct silk factory where his mother worked during World War II making parachutes. The town hall building across from the railroad station used to be a feed mill. And that hot dog shop by the creek? It was once full of kerosene-powered generators, Schlegel says, that supplied the town with electricity.

From here, the university’s clock tower is barely visible.

The Kutztown of Schlegel’s youth revolved as much around these factories as it did the college at the top of the hill. That changed in the 1970s and 80s, Schlegel said, as manufacturing moved South and eventually overseas.

“Hopefully it can come back to that balance again someday,” said Schlegel, whose roots run so deep in this area that he speaks fluent Pennsylvania Dutch. “That’s what I hope for.”

Schlegel became mayor because no one else wanted the job and his friends on Borough Council browbeat him into taking it.

“But I tell you what, if I woulda known this pandemic thing woulda been coming I woulda never done it,” said Schlegel.

The town’s been in the news ever since the outbreak began — an outbreak caused by a university over which it has no control. It’s attempt to seize some control only generated more controversy.

The borough recently passed an ordinance requiring mask use and banning large gatherings, but suspended the latter part after a federal court ruled last week that some of Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic mitigation orders were unconstitutional.

All the while, residents hold their breath and hope the virus doesn’t jump from the student community to the town. It’s a nervous waiting game.

Someday, this pandemic will pass and Kutztown University will fully reopen. Demographic trends may portend further enrollment decline at state-run universities in Pennsylvania, but it’ll likely be a slow change instead of a sudden one.

That means Kutztown has time to chart its future.

Schlegel, a railroad enthusiast, hopes the tourist train that runs through town will recover from the pandemic. He envisions a small industrial revival along the tracks. A company from Georgia may rehab the old foundry, he says excitedly.

A sign tells students to distance as Kutztown University has been seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases among students on the campus in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads)

Others play up Kutztown’s proximity to Allentown and Reading — 30 minutes in either direction. They imagine Kutztown, with its charm and walkability, as a small-town oasis on the suburban fringe.

Perhaps there’s another path forward that hasn’t revealed itself yet.

“Things will get going again,” said Schlegel. “I have no doubt about that. Kutztown’s very resilient. It keeps flopping around. But it’ll do ok.”

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal