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Several students sit outside on the high rise field forming a socially distant circle. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

I felt proud when Penn announced its decision to reverse fall plans, effectively suspending on-campus housing and operations. Proud of my institution for accepting that COVID-19 is beyond our control for the time being, despite our best efforts. This decision signifies that — contrary to popular belief — Penn does indeed actively prioritize the wellbeing and safety of its students over profit from tuition and residential housing. Anticipating that this announcement would be upsetting for many, the administration nonetheless chose to move forward, recognizing that from a public health standpoint, this was the safest option for the greater community. 

Sure, the three-week notice wasn’t great. But let’s not mindlessly complain or blame Penn when other schools, most notably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame, and Michigan State University, reversed their semester plans on even shorter notice — for some, after their students had already arrived on campus. Unlike last March, Penn students will not experience an abrupt evacuation this upcoming fall semester. Now more than ever, when life as we know it is anything but stable, let’s appreciate the smaller feats in life.

COVID-19 isn’t just about life or death; rather, it is about responsibility, long-term health consequences, and being mindful of those who are immunocompromised. Many Penn students are immunocompromised, and we won’t know this from simply passing by them on Locust Walk. Penn’s decision will save lives. A Penn State University student died of COVID-19 complications, specifically respiratory failure. His story is not unique. Further, research has shown that the virus likely causes long-term damage to the lungs, heart, and brain, as COVID-19 symptoms can persist long after an initial recovery.

Of course, institutions of higher education want students to return to campus this upcoming semester, as on-campus housing, dining services, and other operations provide significant revenue. Financial ramifications have been and continue to be felt among colleges and schools nationwide, and Penn is no exception. But given the prevalence of the virus, it’s frankly unfeasible to pretend the world has returned to normalcy and operate as such, when our chief priority should be curbing widespread transmission.

Still, although well-intentioned, Penn’s decision and safety precautions are insufficient to confront the virus if we, the students, are negligent. Many students are returning, or have already returned, to Penn’s campus this semester. No matter how vigilant some of us may be, the Penn administration cannot control off-campus parties and gatherings, where protocol is more likely to be neglected as social distancing guidelines are not strictly enforced. According to multiple institutions’ contact tracing analysis, a majority of infections stem from off-campus residences and gatherings. Indeed, Although less than a week into school, Penn already has at least 42 positive COVID cases, and counting. Not to mention, students who can no longer live on campus often transition to off-campus housing, as it’s fairly straightforward to sublet or sign a lease in University City. 

Health officials and Penn's administration simply condoning unsafe socializing during this time will not prevent college students from relishing in their freedom and independence. As college students, we must actively speak up against our peers' decisions and behaviors if we are to promote a change in mindset within our community. Healthcare workers, the Penn administration, professors, and our Chief Wellness Officer have all voiced their support of Penn’s adapted fall plan. What matters now is that as students, we focus our energy on holding ourselves and our peers accountable to health protocols and procedures, averting one another from acting carelessly and selfishly amid rising case counts.

Let’s use this as an opportunity to stand strong against a mutual enemy, COVID-19, and stand together, as a Penn community. Everyone is confronted with burdens from the pandemic, so why are some attempting to escape from reality while others must continue bracing the storm? Remember that a few mistakes by some will have lasting impacts on many. Frankly, it’s selfish if you believe otherwise. COVID-19 is relentless — but we certainly don’t have to be.

BRIDGET YU is a College junior from Los Angeles, CA studying Psychology. She plans to attend medical school and specialize in psychiatry. Her email address is bridgtyu@sas.upenn.edu. 

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