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Penn plans to return to in-person instruction for the 2021 Fall semester.

Credit: Diego Cárdenas Uribe

Penn students largely expressed excitement about the possibility of taking in-person classes this fall after a year of navigating online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Top Penn administrators announced in an email to faculty on March 15 that the University is currently planning for a return to in-person learning for the fall semester as widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine is underway. The email acknowledged that specific details are still being developed, and the plan to return to classrooms will hinge on city, state, and national health guidelines, but the prospect excited students, some of whom said that a return to traditional learning will be beneficial for social and mental health. 

College first year Anna Fu said she looks forward to experiencing in-person classes for the first time, but added that the transition to a new teaching style may be overwhelming. 

“It’s exciting, but also scary, because I’m so used to classes online and recorded lectures on Zoom," Fu said. "I feel like everything in person happening live will be back to the norm, but also a little different from what I’ve gotten used to.” 

Fu added, however, that she is excited to soon be able to get food and coffee with friends after class in the fall, rather than simply turning off her laptop.

College first year Julian Marquez also praised the University’s decision to return to in-person classes, citing Penn's COVID-19 testing operation and a decreasing number of positive cases on campus. Penn's undergraduate positivity rate decreased to 0.59% in late March after hitting a peak of 4.47% in early February

Marquez said he doesn’t expect many COVID-19 concerns in the fall, as long as students get vaccinated and continue to wear masks, but added that Penn should continue to offer some remote learning options.

“I feel like [the University] should offer in-person and hybrid classes for students that can’t travel internationally or are concerned about COVID-19 still," Marquez said. "But I think it’s a good thing to start opening up and seeing if it goes well or not.”

Fu agreed with Marquez, adding that Penn should consider offering a combination of online lectures and in-person classes to maximize learning opportunities for students who are more comfortable with either style. 

Some students hope that Penn will continue to vigorously enforce COVID-19 health guidelines — including mandating vaccinations for a return to campus. Some universities — like Cornell University and Rutgers University — have already announced they will require students to be vaccinated before returning to campus this fall.

“I think Penn should definitely make it a requirement that everyone is vaccinated before going back in person just so that everyone is safe," Nursing sophomore Jessica Abene said. "If someone doesn’t feel comfortable, then they should have an [option to take classes online].” 

Abene added that Penn students should especially have access to in-person labs during the fall semester because she has found them harder to do online. She added, however, that it may make sense for larger lectures to be online to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.

College junior Arjun Jain agreed that Penn should make it a requirement for students to be vaccinated before attending in-person classes. Jain praised Penn's announcement, adding that "education quality is probably better with in-person classes."

Engineering junior Priya Kumar believes having in-person classes during the fall should be allowed if Penn continues to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health guidelines, COVID-19 cases continue to decline, and a significant number of students receive the vaccine. She added, however, that she worries that Penn students might still spread the virus to neighboring communities if in-person instruction returns.

Kumar also said that students may still benefit from classes with recorded lectures, more flexible schedules, and the ability to take classes at home for mental health reasons. 

Several students previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the socially isolating nature of the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health over the past year. In Penn’s COVID-19 fall check-in survey, 81% of undergraduate respondents said they had felt nervous or anxious at least several days in the past two weeks.

Wharton first year Braulio Gonzalez is confident that Penn will be able to manage an in-person semester despite the pandemic. He said he looks forward to potentially performing better in in-person classes, meeting with professors one-on-one, and talking with peers for improved social and mental health.

“Having in-person classes and having people have at least some socialization, even though it’s in a classroom, will decrease the anxiety of students,” Gonzalez said.

Kumar added that she was excited for the prospect of returning to the classroom for her final year at Penn.

“Senior year is the time to meet new people and get to see friends. It’s exciting [and] something to celebrate," she said. "Doing that virtually is not the same as doing stuff in person or doing classes in person and being with your class or major before graduating.” 

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