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Global travel bans and the uncertain fate of Penn's classes and dorm availabilities have left students unsure of future living plans.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

As coronavirus cases surge in the United States, many institutions of higher education are closing their classroom doors and moving courses online. But despite suggesting the possibility of remote instruction, Penn still has not committed to a decision.

Global travel bans and the uncertain fate of Penn's classes and dormitory availabilities have left international and first-generation, low-income students unsure of where they will live and how they will pay for housing and meals. 

On Tuesday morning, Provost Wendell Pritchett announced in an email that Penn will ban all University-related travel and large on-campus events. Pritchett wrote that Penn is preparing for the possibility of online instruction but deferred a final decision until later in the week.

Although five other Ivy League institutions have announced plans to shift classes to online platforms, Penn has not rolled out a plan to date.

Many students are anxiously awaiting an update from the University, as Pritchett's Tuesday email left them with more questions than answers.

College first-year Sophie Chen is from Hangzhou, China and is unsure what will happen if she is forced to vacate her dorm, as international travel restrictions are frequently changing. 

“In terms of going home, I’m really stressed about that because I saw my family back in December, but I don’t know when I will be seeing them this year, if at all,” Chen said. “We’re not sure what Penn is going to do, but it’s definitely difficult as an international student because we don’t really have anywhere to go if they ask us to move out of our dorms.”

Like many others relying on student visas, she is also concerned about the University’s possible shift to online classes and how that will impact the academic credits she planned to earn for the spring semester.

“I’m scared we will have to be sent back to China to complete our online classes,” Chen said. “I think a student visa is contingent upon taking however many credits in person, so I’m worried about that.”

The New York Times reported that many online courses do not count toward international student visas.

Chen does not know if she will be able to return home at any time before next winter break as Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus, is just a 352-mile flight from her hometown. With over 80,000 cases, China has the most of any country, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to advise against all non-essential travel to the country, according to The New York Times.

College first-year Jesse Soto, who identifies as an FGLI student, said the University must consider how remote instruction affects low-income students who may rely on Penn for meals, housing, and internet access.

“For me, one of my biggest fears is food insecurity. I know that without the dining plan, I would not be getting two to three meals a day,” Soto said. 

He said although he qualified to receive a laptop from the University and has internet access at home, he knows other students who do not have equal tools at home. 

"[Online learning] bars so many students from continuing their education and, quite frankly, that’s not what we came to these institutions for," Soto said.

Soto also questioned what a potential move to online classes would mean for students with work-study jobs who rely on the income to support their families. 

“As a poor student coming from a poor family, I’m not walking around campus thinking about these things for myself, I’m thinking about my family,” Soto said. “If work-study is no longer available, what are my next steps? How will the University take care of this?”

Paul Richards, director of communications for Penn's Division of Finance, did not return a request for comment regarding what steps the University would take to assist highly aided students in the event of a shift to online classes.

College first-year Carlos Montes, who identifies as an FGLI student, echoed Soto’s concerns regarding the safety and housing of FGLI students. Although Montes believes that switching to online classes might be the best solution to stop the spread of the virus, he does not think low-income students should be forced to vacate their dorms if the University does not pay for relocation. 

Penn’s Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein sent an email to all teaching faculty on Monday afternoon encouraging instructors to familiarize themselves with online-teaching tools, such as Zoom and Canvas, in case Penn decides to cancel in-person classes.

Wharton first-year Khushi Shelat, who is from Australia, said institutions like Penn are not suited for online education, as professors may not be well-versed with online teaching platforms such as Zoom.

As she awaits a definitive response from the University on whether or not she should travel home, Shelat said she is more worried about being harmed academically than she is about contracting the virus.

Supporters of shifting classes online organized on social media and, on Monday morning, College first-year Ella Cho started a petition demanding that Penn move classes to online platforms.

“I don’t know why they’re so hesitant," Cho said. "Because everyone is on spring break right now and most students are home or away from campus, they should seize this opportunity to clear campus out to the best of their abilities and prevent a really rapid spread once spring break ends.” 

The petition has more than 1,700 signatures as of Tuesday night. Once the petition reaches 2,000 signatures, Cho said she would consider sharing the petition with administrators in hopes of demonstrating that students want more “proactive steps” to be taken.

Chen and Shelat said they did not support the petition as they felt some students were signing it because they did not want to go to class. Shelat added that it could create a housing crisis for some FGLI and international students.

“I don’t think that kicking everybody out is an option, because not everybody has a home," Montes said. "Not everybody has a home to go to, or a home they can work in. That is why we go to school here."