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The fall semester will be conducted in a hybrid in-person and virtual format.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Students have responded with mixed reactions, ranging from optimism to considerations of taking a gap year, to Penn's decision to open campus and offer instruction in a hybrid format for fall 2020. 

In a University-wide email sent Thursday afternoon, President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli announced that the fall semester will begin as planned on Sept. 1, with all in-person operations ending on Nov. 20. Fall break is canceled, and the remainder of the semester and final exams will be conducted remotely in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

While the format of each class will be determined by the undergraduate school and professor, the University anticipates that the majority of classes will be delivered online.  

Students who are unable to or prefer not to return to campus will be able to conduct the entirety of their fall coursework remotely, the email read.

Rising College sophomore Joshua Baek said he is considering taking a gap year because he feels that the hybrid instruction model will not offer as fulfilling an academic experience as he would like. 

He is also concerned about his living situation because he originally planned on living in his fraternity's on-campus house during the fall semester, but is unsure what will happen based on the University's plan to de-densify housing.

According to the Thursday email, the University will only guarantee housing for first-years, sophomores, and transfer students. These students, including those planning to live in Greek housing, will live in private bedrooms with a maximum of six students per one bathroom.

Baek said that because he is a first-generation, low-income student, he does not think a virtual semester would be worth the financial burden. According to Student Registration and Financial Services, financial aid packages and the bill for the fall semester have been delayed to “accurately reflect Penn’s announced plans for the Fall 2020 semester.”

“I would be staying [on campus] for two or three months and then coming back, and the flights are expensive,” Baek, who lives in California, said. “So [the cost] is something from the FGLI perspective that I think a lot of people aren’t really considering.”

Rising College junior Katrina McDermott said she is relieved about being able to come back to campus instead of missing another semester of her college experience. Like Baek, however, she is worried about the status of her on-campus housing situation after the University wrote in its announcement that on-campus housing will not be guaranteed for juniors and seniors. 

The College House system will be able to accommodate a percentage of juniors and seniors who applied for on-campus housing but additional off-campus space will be leased for those who are unable to be accommodated, the email read. An email sent from Residential Services later that day, however, did not give students the option to stay in on-campus housing. Residential Services wrote that juniors and seniors must indicate by July 1 whether they will find their own alternative housing or be assigned off-campus housing by the University.

The Fall Semester Planning FAQ also read that juniors and seniors will be relocated to Sansom Place East or to off-campus properties, with no mention of an on-campus housing option.

“It’s unimaginable how different next semester will be,” McDermott said. “The announcement legitimized all of my concerns and fears about the different reality that we will face in August." She said she is unclear on whether she should proactively search for her own housing arrangements, and if her roommates will change. 

Rising Wharton and College senior Justin Lish said he is also conflicted about returning to campus in the fall due to the amount of social restrictions the University announced would be set in place on campus. He said he is unsure if students will follow the implemented health and safety guidelines.

“I think that [Penn was] exhaustive in the risks that they addressed and how they were going to try to mitigate it," Lish said. "I just think that it brings into question, is it worth going back under such restrictions?”

Lish said that he was pleasantly surprised about how much information Penn included in the email in comparison to other universities, but that it failed to address many issues including how the University plans to enforce social distancing measures and safety precautions in off-campus living areas. 

Like Lish, rising Engineering sophomore Michelle Pang said she is skeptical about Penn’s ability to keep students safe from the coronavirus. She added that she was doubtful of the University’s ability to implement universal testing, contact tracing, and social distancing protocols for the fall semester. 

According to Thursday's email, all students will be tested for COVID-19 when they first arrive on campus, and additional testing will be conducted throughout the semester in the Hall of Flags in Houston Hall. Students will be required to wear a mask in public places, and daily symptoms must be checked through a mobile app or via text before students can enter campus buildings.

Pang added Penn's response was late in the summer compared to local and national universities who have already made announcements about fall plans, which worries her about the University's plan to contain the virus for the fall.

"I feel like Penn's relatively late response shows that if corona does reach Penn somehow, they won't be quick enough to contain an outbreak," she said. 

Rising College sophomore Rebecca Hennessy said that she is concerned about her class schedule for the fall due to format restrictions based on class size.

According to the The Fall Semester Planning FAQ page, classes with more than 25 students will be recorded and largely online-based. Those with fewer than 25 students may be offered in-person, based on space availability, and will be held in larger spaces. Recordings of class meetings will also be provided for students who need the option of asynchronous learning.

Although she is concerned about not being able to go home before Thanksgiving, Hennessy said she is excited to be able to return to campus in the fall and still plans to do so. 

“I’m definitely happy with the way that Penn is handling this,” Hennessy said. “They’re making it accessible for everyone by offering different options.”

For rising College junior Ramona Sripitak, who lives in Thailand, the email confirmed her decision to not return to campus in the fall. Reasoning that the majority of her classes will be held online and that clubs and recruitment events will likely be restricted, Sripitak said she felt the best decision for her would be to stay home for the fall semester. 

“It’s going to be online either way, so doing online at Penn or here will be pretty much the same,"  Sripitak said.

While she thought Penn's email was informative, Sripitak said she is waiting to hear how the University will accommodate international students who live in different time zones. She said she currently has concerns about class attendance policies, and whether she will be forced to attend her classes at irregular times, which may prompt her to switch her current classes to lecture formats that will be offered through asynchronous recordings.

Rising Wharton sophomore and Class of 2023 President Derek Nhieu said that, in his opinion, this was the best option that Penn could make for the upcoming semester. 

“I was very happy," Nhieu said. "This is what I was personally hoping for. Having the students return on campus is going to be very beneficial for everyone."

Staff reporters Jonathan Huang, Ekram Ibrahim, Shirali Shah, Bala Thenappan, and Zoey Weisman contributed reporting.

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