Ever since word got out that first-year students have been violating Penn’s COVID-19 guidelines, I’ve had to set the record straight countless times: I was not at one of those parties. Just this past week, I was met with a frenzy of varied reactions to our so-called “not-so-quiet Quiet Period.” A professor sarcastically called me out in class for attending these social gatherings. An off-campus classmate fervently went on an Instagram tirade about our irresponsibility. And my parents called to remind me always to wear a mask — even when indoors — concerned that one week into the semester, we would already be sent home.
News of these maskless parties immediately threw first-year students into the limelight, giving rise to questions of whether Penn was naive in taking a leap of faith. Aside from an ominous cloud of discomfort, there seems to be a prevailing sense of incredulity that has factored into the Class of 2024’s rise to notoriety. Most of the Penn community has been taken aback by first years’ inconsiderate disregard for campus protocol — almost as if no one was expecting some of us to choose short-term gratification over the community’s needs. As I see it, the expectation when opening campus never should have been that there would be no transgressions. It should not come as a surprise that asking outgoing 18-year-olds to patiently wait another two weeks in their rooms was not going to work. Instead, what we urgently needed was a clear set of rules and countermeasures to address noncompliance with Quiet Period requirements. Focusing on the blanket category of first years as the bane of campus life diverts attention away from arguably the more important stakeholder: the University itself.
It goes without saying that COVID-19 came at a truly inopportune time for us first years universally — we were the only ones expected to launch our undergraduate years over Zoom. I myself stayed in Korea this past semester, during which I spent many weekends joining 4 a.m. calls looking for any chance to meet new people. Now that the opportunity to truly claim our independence has been conferred upon us, there is undoubtedly a sense of anticipation for what is to come. All of this has only been amplified by pandemic fatigue, meaning it is simply growing more difficult to sit through a series of quarantines.
Even for the students who don't have the express intention of violating COVID-19 guidelines, another complexity of on-campus interactions is peer pressure. While it is not impossible to juggle our fear of COVID-19 and our desire to make friends early in the semester, it is admittedly difficult to befriend those who only “leave their campus residences for limited, essential movement.” Students who started out strictly abiding by campus rules are thus often inclined to make personal compromises, which leads them down a slippery slope of unwise decisions. As such, while I can do nothing but condemn the avid partygoers for endangering their peers, let alone West Philadelphia residents, I cannot say I was surprised — and neither should you.
This is not to an elaborate way of arousing pity to justify first years’ transgressions. I indeed urge all first years to be introspective and call out troublemakers. However, once we admit to ourselves that this recent misbehavior is not surprising, we can start to see that the onus of safeguarding our community is also on the University.
It is ultimately up to Penn to provide clear guidelines regarding what behavior is allowed — not to mention promptly address the misconduct that occurs. Some first years told The Daily Pennsylvanian that they felt as though the University had not effectively communicated COVID-19 rules. I, for example, frankly had an embarrassing amount of trouble grasping what specifically constitutes “the community beyond Penn’s campus” — or, more specifically, whether I was allowed to make a trip to CVS on my second night. While this ambiguity is certainly not a viable excuse for partygoers, further transparency will prevent those committing minor infractions from claiming plausible deniability, or otherwise unintentionally disobeying rules. Only when Penn challenges major transgressions such as off-campus parties with the gravity they deserve will the pendulum of each student’s cost-benefit analysis swing toward caution.
With the Quiet Period now behind us, we need a better picture of what campus life will look like after Feb. 1. When Penn starts allowing people to gather indoors with their pod and exit their residences for non-essential purposes, we need to ask ourselves: Will we be surprised when reports of another party come in? As the University continues to make calculated risks regarding COVID-19 guidelines, part of these “calculations” need to account for an unsurprising amount of broken rules — unless Penn explicitly does something about them.
ANDY YOON is a first-year student in the College and Wharton from Seoul, South Korea. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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