The University announced on August 11 that it will not be offering on-campus housing for the vast majority of students this fall, and almost all classes will be held online. This was a reversal from its earlier announcement in June, which promised a hybrid academic model and guaranteed on-campus housing for first years, sophomores, and transfer students.
Penn’s decision is a positive step towards protecting public health: some schools which resumed in-person instruction, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have already seen COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. Despite this, the timing of Penn’s announcement leaves much to be desired. By introducing such drastic policy changes just weeks before move-in, Penn has placed many students in difficult positions, both financially and academically. Because of this, Penn should have adopted its current fall plan earlier in the summer.
Penn’s August 11 announcement came just weeks before the start of the semester on September 1st, leaving them scrambling to find alternative arrangements. Many students do not have the luxury of living at home this fall, including some who identify as first-generation low-income, some who live outside the United States, some who are taking in-person clinical or lab courses, and some who face challenging domestic or personal circumstances. While off-campus housing options are available, these are financially out of reach for some students, and it can be difficult to find leases on such short notice. And though Penn has invited students to apply for a housing exception to live on campus this fall, a similar process in March rejected many students who had nowhere else to go. Had Penn chosen to close on-campus housing earlier in the summer, these vulnerable students would have had more time and flexibility to make alternative arrangements.
Many students had also made plans to travel to campus before Penn’s latest announcement, leading them to face additional challenges as their plans changed. Traveling during a pandemic is particularly difficult; some students, especially international students, made complex, costly arrangements so they would be able to reach Philadelphia safely and live on campus in the fall. With Penn’s new policy, some of these students are now forced to stay home, and they may not be able to get refunds for their planned travel. This places an undue financial burden on students and their families in the midst of an economic recession. Penn has already financially burdened students by introducing only minimal tuition and fees reductions for a substantially-curtailed educational experience, and its delay in changing fall plans has added additional needless expenses.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic presents a rapidly-changing situation, Penn could have still avoided changing its fall plans at such a late stage. Instead of reversing its policy in August, Penn should have followed the example of peer institutions that placed stricter limits on on-campus living and instruction from the outset. Harvard University announced on July 6 that all courses would take place remotely for the 2020-2021 academic year, and around 40% of students would be allowed to live on campus each semester. This more restrictive policy has so far saved Harvard from having to change its plans as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the country, while many Ivy League schools that initially proposed hybrid models have had to backtrack. And even if Penn had initially proposed a hybrid model, it should have changed its plans when COVID-19 cases first began to rise in July, instead of waiting until a late stage in August. Delaying the policy changes only served to inconvenience students.
Penn’s decision to limit on-campus housing and instruction is a positive one. However, this does not excuse the lateness of the announcement, which places an undue burden on students.
Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.