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The desk College first-year Isabela Viswanath is learning from for the spring semester. (Photo from Isabela Viswanath)

While thousands of students are living on campus for a hybrid spring semester, many chose to not return to Philadelphia at all in fear of contracting the virus.

More than 3,000 students arrived on Penn’s campus in mid-January, many for the first time since March 2020. Those who are on campus are required to heed guidelines that prevent the spread of COVID-19, including mandatory COVID-19 screening tests and social distancing measures. 

Some students, however, still chose to stay home in efforts to protect their families and themselves from the virus, adding that being away from Penn has nevertheless made them feel lonely.

Atypical to the experience of college seniors, College senior Mark D’Souza is spending his last semester at Penn at home in Dubai. Though D’Souza was originally planning to live in Harrison College House, he decided not to return to campus because both of his roommates chose not to return to campus for fear of catching the virus.

According to D'Souza, Penn also would not allow him to arrive on campus in the middle of the semester after the official move-in period, which was the group's preferred option amid the pandemic's ongoing wreckage. His decision was not based out of the concern for travel restrictions as the United Arab Emirates currently allows travel to and from the U.S.

D’Souza hopes to return to Philadelphia, either as a graduate student or later in the semester while living in off-campus housing, as he believes it is unfortunate that many seniors will not be able to spend their last year at Penn together on campus. 

Similar to D'Souza, international travel restrictions were not a concern for Wharton first-year Peter Lee, who is remaining in Hong Kong this semester, as residents are allowed to travel between Hong Kong and the U.S. Instead, Lee said he stayed home due to the financial and emotional burdens of traveling to Philadelphia.

After being accepted to Penn in 2018 and deferring his enrollment due to compulsory service in the Singaporean military, Lee said that his time in the military made him realize that while it would have been great to meet people in person, the use of resources to travel and the risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19 was not a good enough trade-off for him.

Wharton first-year Sebastiane de Réal Caballes stayed home in Texas out of concern for his family, hoping to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 by choosing not to travel to Penn this spring. 

Caballes said that he initially felt left out of campus life as he saw his friends posting photos of themselves at Penn on Instagram, but emphasized that it is important to situate those feelings within the context of an ongoing pandemic.

“Definitely during move-in I felt a little bit of FOMO because a lot of my friends were moving into Lauder, which is where I would have been,”  Caballes said. “But it’s not something that on its own would make me want to go to campus or regret my decision to stay [home].” 

Like Caballes, Wharton first-year Adelyn Chen’s primary concern was exposing her family to COVID-19 by traveling back and forth from Philadelphia to her home in California.

“I have been motivating myself by knowing that what I’m doing is what is safest for me and my family, and I feel like that is more important than going out and having fun,” Chen said.

Wharton first-year Adelyn Chen takes remote classes from her home in California. (Photo from Adelyn Chen)

For other students, the lack of in-person classes and activities alongside the risk of exposure to COVID-19 made returning to campus in the spring unappealing.

College junior Kartik Devashish, who is at home in Texas, said he would have considered returning to campus if more classes were offered in person, but reasoned that another semester of online learning was not worth the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“We still really don’t know that if you were to catch COVID, would you regret it down the line?” Devashish said. “That’s not a risk I’m willing to take at this stage.”

Last fall, Devashish said he experienced challenges in establishing a strong work routine at home, emphasizing that he found it easier to get burned out when attending college in his childhood bedroom — devoid of socialization. Still, he is willing to undertake a second virtual semester with the hopes of returning to campus safely in fall 2021. 

Some students also chose not to return to campus because they felt their home environment provided a safer and better quality lifestyle.

College first-year Summer Maher chose to stay at home in New Jersey because she said isolating in a dorm did not seem appealing to her, adding that she enjoys the sense of community she has at home with her family.

Adjusting to her first semester of college in an entirely virtual setting was difficult for Maher, who said that because many of her fall and spring semester classes are asynchronous, she has learned to rely on herself and her classmates to understand the material. However, she is now more optimistic about the spring semester, having made friends with other students while studying for classes and grown more used to completing virtual assignments.

Mentioning added complications of traveling across the country and food insecurity as her top concerns, Engineering sophomore Jenesis Cochrane also chose to stay home with her family in Texas this semester. 

Cochrane cited dining hall operations as a primary reason for not coming to campus. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the number of people who can enter a dining hall is limited, and students can no longer receive as many helpings of food as they would like, she said. She reasoned that for her, food is more accessible at home where she can share the responsibility of cooking with her family. 

College sophomore Isabela Viswanath, who lives in Philadelphia, decided that it does not make sense for her to return to campus while already living nearby, adding that she never believed the University would ultimately invite all students back to campus this semester.

Penn reversed its decision on Aug. 11 to allow students to live on campus following an increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States — just three weeks before students were scheduled to move in. There are currently more COVID-19 cases in the U.S. than there were in the fall. 

Though Viswanath felt socially isolated during the fall semester, she hopes that she will be able to have more in-person social interactions as more of her friends at Penn have moved to the city for the spring.

“Now that Penn did bring people back, I know more people in Philly now,” Viswanath said. “I’m just going to make a point to get out of my house more, go on walks with people if possible, and I’m hoping that’ll bring up my morale and I’ll feel better with all the academic work.”

Many students who stayed at home for the spring still expressed hesitation in returning to campus for the fall 2021 semester.

Before feeling comfortable enough to return to Philadelphia, Maher stressed that students on campus need to behave more responsibly, expressing frustration at first years who have been breaking social distancing guidelines while living on campus. 

Multiple first-year students have reportedly been partying in college houses and meeting in large groups both indoors and outdoors, a direct violation of Penn's COVID-19 guidelines.

“It’s hard enough having to watch you guys meeting each other on campus, and then to see people ruining our chances of coming back on campus or having a normal fall semester, it’s really frustrating,” Maher said. “Please keep in mind that we also want to be on campus, so do your best, do your part, and stay safe.”

Her message to first-year students who are currently on campus, she said, is that students have a responsibility to the community of Philadelphia to follow COVID-19 guidelines and that it is difficult for those who made the decision to stay home to protect their family members to see other students behave irresponsibly.

Before Chen returns to Philadelphia, she said she hopes that most people are vaccinated and that in-person classes and activities are more widely available to students.

“I would prefer that going out and having social interaction is something that would be encouraged, as opposed to something that people should be cautious about doing,” Chen said.

Despite having ongoing concerns about COVID-19, Devashish expressed a more definite interest in returning to campus in fall 2021 to complete his senior year.

"I think that's probably where I draw the line, I would not give up a senior year back on campus with friends for anything," Devashish said.