On August 11, the “Revision to Fall Semester Plans” email brought undergraduate students immense sadness and dismay. Due to the devastating pandemic and its inevitable health concerns, Penn regretfully decided that an in-person semester was not feasible. For incoming first-year students who had spent the last five months facing cancellation after cancellation, this news was just another disappointment exacerbating their already disenchanted spirits. While students undoubtedly understood this decision given the extent of the pandemic, having to spend their first semester confined within their childhood home was not exactly the college experience they envisioned.
October 30th’s email, however, held very different news. Students rejoiced at the announcement promising a return to campus, eager to reclaim their “lost” college experience. Many, however, remain skeptical. Anything can happen in the next three months, especially as the pandemic rages on. But the benefits of an in-person college experience certainly can not be ignored, especially given the myriad challenges students face in the current online environment.
Modern education relies heavily on technology, causing students' eyes to remain glued to computer screens for every assignment. Online school only increases one’s screen time as computers are now used for homework and classes. Penn has made efforts to provide a sense of community with College House activities and virtual club meetings, but no one really wants to look at their screen even longer. Although remote learning will remain throughout the spring, the mere act of welcoming students on campus will still do wonders for their mental and physical health. Taking study breaks in Philly (rather than in one’s kitchen) and being immersed in a college community (rather than socializing solely with one’s parents) may not decrease students’ screen time, but will significantly improve their mental state and simultaneously improve their attitudes towards school.
Of course, health takes precedence, but it has been proven possible for college life to function amidst the pandemic. While Penn is surely incomparable to other schools, it is important to look at other universities and evaluate their successes/failures in dealing with the virus. Cornell University, for instance, continues to have low transmission rates despite its large student body. As a student who visited family at Cornell and witnessed their safety procedures in action, I can personally attest to the students’ awareness of the health crisis and their adherence to the restrictions. Penn’s plan of strict mask enforcement, biweekly testing, social distancing, and daily symptom monitoring (which is similar to Cornell’s) therefore has great potential for success.
While the return to campus is risky, it is certainly necessary for both students and the Penn community as a whole. As students celebrate this good news and begin planning for the upcoming semester, we can only hope that another “Revision” email doesn’t appear in our inboxes.
EMILY CHANG is a College first-year student studying Sociology. Her email address is email@example.com.