Penn announced Thursday that students will be invited to return to campus for the fall 2020 semester under a hybrid model of instruction. The official announcement detailed changing housing and dining policies, an updated academic calendar, expectations for adherence to a new Student Campus Compact, and other new policies relating to campus life.
Despite its detail, the emailed announcement did not include much information as to what the University means by “hybrid instruction,” namely which classes will be offered online or in-person. An online FAQ contains slightly more detail, indicating that most courses will be online but classes with fewer than 25 students “may be offered in-person”. However, this remains up to the discretion of the professor and the availability of classroom space to accommodate social distancing. Students have been instructed to email their individual professors and see whether each class will take place online or in-person.
Without further detail, it is impossible for students to know which format their individual courses will follow. While there are many unknowns, the University must release more information regarding fall course formats as soon as it is available, as this will allow students to make informed decisions regarding the semester.
Many Penn students are currently facing a dilemma in deciding whether to return to campus in the fall. For some, in-person classes are an important criterion — they would opt to participate in classes on campus if available, but they would choose to live at home if all their classes were online. Other students who live locally might consider commuting, but it is hard for them to decide if this is logistically possible without knowing the details of their course schedules.
Considering that returning students must confirm or cancel on-campus housing before the end of July to avoid a fee, and many off-campus leases have already been signed, it is imperative that students gain access to as much information as possible sooner rather than later. If Penn does not release more information before housing deadlines, it will only further complicate students’ lives: some may regret solidifying housing plans upon learning that all their courses are online, while others may regret deciding to stay home if their courses are available in-person.
Since professors with classes under 25 students have discretion as to whether they wish to hold classes online or in-person, it may be difficult for the University to definitively state a policy for the fall. However, even in this situation, there are several steps Penn could take which would help students solidify their plans. For example, the University could release comprehensive criteria for determining whether a given class type — including labs, studios, seminars, — will be taught online or in-person. This could help students understand if there is even a possibility that any of their classes will meet in-person. Students could also benefit from a University timeline detailing when professors are expected to make final decisions regarding course formats.
While the University announced that the fall semester will follow a “hybrid model,” it is unclear exactly what level of in-person instruction this entails. Although the FAQ page states that most courses will meet online, the term “hybrid” may give false hope to students who wish to return to in-person instruction. To improve clarity of communication, Penn should turn away from vague language and instead release a comprehensive list of all courses with 25 students or fewer and the format in which they will be taught. It should not be on the students to individually reach out to professors and compile information to see what their fall semester could look like. Other universities such as Tufts are already implementing this system and updating their students on whether each class under 50 students will be online or not, and if the latter, where each class will be held on campus.
While the information Penn released about the upcoming semester is a good start, it is not sufficient enough for students to make informed decisions about whether to return to campus. To assist students in this decision-making process, the University should provide more detailed guidelines as to which classes will be offered in-person as soon as the information becomes available.
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