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A Nursing course having class outside on Nov. 10, 2020. This semester, Nursing students have the option to enroll in in-person, online, or a hybrid model of clinicals.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Students and faculty participating in the limited number of in-person classes being offered this semester are focusing on resuming safe instruction without compromising public health.

Over the last few weeks, thousands of students have returned to campus for the first time since campus shut down in March 2020. The majority of undergraduates, though, are returning for yet another semester of virtual instruction, as only some courses with clinical experiences and in-person research required for graduation transition back to in-person learning.

In the School of Nursing, sophomores, juniors, and seniors have the option to enroll in an in-person, online, or hybrid model of nursing clinicals, according to Nursing junior Charlotte Cecarelli. 

Cecarelli and Nursing senior Kaylee Arndt each chose to take in-person clinicals this semester after having a successful experience doing so last semester. Both said they are satisfied with Penn’s safety precautions, citing the distribution of masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment during in-person clinical rotations, as well as a requirement from the school that they be kept away from COVID-19-positive patients.

Arndt and Cecarelli also have limited in-person labs, and both are grateful for the chance to return to in-person learning, emphasizing the importance of hands-on experience in nursing. 

“Last semester we learned how to change a dressing on an IV, which is something that, because it’s a very sterile procedure, I don’t think we would have been able to learn on our own at home online,” Cecarelli said. 

Arndt added that she remains cautious about expanding in-person classes beyond what is most necessary, as she said most non-Nursing students have yet to receive the vaccine. 

“My concern with other classes being in person, is that [the students] are not vaccinated. So they obviously have a higher chance of getting something. I would have to know what precautions these classes are taking and whatnot," Arndt said. "I do have to lean on the side of ‘If you can do it online. You should do it online.'"

Graham Wabiszewski, a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, is one of only a few instructors to teach an in-person undergraduate course, MEAM 201: "Machine Design and Manufacturing," this semester. He compared the process of planning the class with COVID-19 safety guidelines and registering it to be in person to the early phases of designing as an engineer.

“Usually, your squiggles are all over the place and they start to straighten out, as you start to converge on, ‘What is the answer?’ And I think that appropriately describes almost any effort like this — it was throwing everything out there. What will work? What won't work? What should we prioritize? What shouldn't we? And then, over time, converging,” Wabiszewski said.  

Wabiszewski intended to teach the class during the fall semester, but when the University backtracked from its reopening plans to operate remotely, he ended up canceling the entire course because he did not feel comfortable translating the class to a virtual setting. Now, the class is virtual until February — when the students will start taking part in lab activities. 

Like Arndt and Cecarelli, he highlighted the importance of in-person participation in learning certain concepts. 

“There's packages of abstract knowledge that come out of that direct experience that are really hard to lecture on. You have to be there. You have to do that. You have to experience the geometry of it in the physical [world] to truly understand it,” Wabiszewski said.

There are greater in-person opportunities within the graduate schools, though only a limited number of graduate students were able to attend in-person events during the first week of classes due to Philadelphia's quarantine requirements, according to some graduate school professors.

Serguei Netessine, vice dean for global initiatives and Dhirubhai Ambani professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Wharton, and John Hollway, associate dean and executive director of the Quattrone Center at Penn Law School, said that graduate school professors had the ability to choose whether to teach their classes entirely online or in a hybrid format.

Mobile podiums, distanced seating, a high-definition camera for Zoom, and a lecture hall designed for greater occupancy were all parts of the decision and planning to incorporate in-person learning. In the Wharton MBA program, 41 course sections are prepared to include an in-person component that allows for a maximum of 24 students per classroom. 

When Penn Law presented Hollway with the choice of teaching LAW 997: "Conviction Integrity: Errors in Criminal Justice" in person or online, he said he was “happy” to seize the opportunity to go back to the classroom. 

“For me, it wasn't ever a question of 'Why would I want to do this?' I think the question would be 'Why wouldn't I want to do this?'” Hollway said.

For Netessine, returning to in-person instruction was also a question of responding to the students’ needs – and considering whether a hybrid or fully online class would offer the best experience was a major part of his decision. He pointed out that Zoom is more convenient in some ways, citing that photo and video sharing is easier, and masks — by eliminating lip-reading — can inhibit students’ ability to hear him clearly in a large, distanced lecture hall.

Michael Bidwell, professor of Management in the Wharton School, echoed similar concerns about a wide variety of adjustments needed for hybrid learning, adding that he decided to shorten his class and include some pre-recorded content, and that he is still figuring out how to most effectively balance breathing and teaching through a mask. 

Ultimately, Netessine said that, despite some drawbacks, the collaborative and active learning characteristics of the class translated better in person, and that he now has more energy when teaching to a live audience. 

Bidwell agreed, saying that despite masks and precautions, he has seen a much wider variety of students willing to interact in a hybrid classroom setting. 

"From the professor's standpoint, there is something nice about actually having human beings in the room to talk to,” he said.

Bidwell, Netssine, and Hollway also mentioned that many of their students chose not to enroll in in-person classes this semester. A sizeable portion of their students – their estimates varied from 20% to 60% – chose virtual instruction for reasons such as travel restrictions, COVID-19 safety, and qualms about not being able to eat in class. 

Dina Issakova, first-year Ph.D. student in the School of Arts and Sciences, returned to campus in fall 2020 for in-person learning despite concerns about catching COVID-19 — particularly because she had to travel to campus as an international student from Canada.

“My most important reason for coming back was I wanted to get an in-person sense of ‘Can I actually work in this lab?’ And I felt like a remote lab might not actually give you that understanding,” Issakova said, adding that her on-campus experience allows her to pursue long-term research and take advantage of in-person networking opportunities with her Ph.D. cohort. 

Despite her initial concerns about being on campus and participating in in-person labs, Issakova said that safe behaviors of her peers have given her a sense of security. On several occasions, she said, the peers in her cohort even went beyond Penn’s safety requirements by getting tested weekly before it was a requirement and setting up alternating days to use the office. 

Similarly, for Arndt, trust in her peers, as well as her recent opportunity to get the COVID-19 vaccine from the University of Pennsylvania Health System, were the primary reasons she felt fairly safe in her clinicals and labs.

“I think nursing students are good peers to have because you can trust them to be following the guidelines because they know the consequences,” Arndt said. 

Wabiszewski cited faith in his students to behave responsibly and his confidence in the University's contact tracing system as reasons he felt relatively safe participating in his in-person lab, adding that he actually trusts his MEAM 201 students more than the general population. 

“I don't think I'll ever feel 100% safe, but it is a risk profile that I'm okay with,” Wabiszewski said. 

Since Penn Law finished a hybrid fall semester without finding evidence of any COVID-19 spread among students, Hollway said he had a high level of confidence in hybrid instruction and that he always felt very safe with in-person instruction. 

Since Jan. 3, 110 graduate students and 265 undergraduate students have tested positive for COVID-19.

Despite having some lingering concerns, students and professors participating in in-person classes are pleased with its results.

“You know, if we have a little slice of normalcy, even if it takes a lot of work to do, I'd rather do that than not do that — at least try,” Wabiszewski said.