Penn administrators recently announced plans to return to in-person classes, research, and campus living for fall 2021. In the announcement, they cited widespread COVID-19 vaccine distribution, projections of increased vaccine supply in the coming months, and campus safety measures as reasons to expect a return to in-person activities in the fall. According to current projections, most Americans will be able to receive COVID-19 vaccines by the end of the summer, which would greatly reduce the risks associated with in-person University activities.
If the course of the pandemic allows Penn to resume in-person classes, many students will benefit — with virtual learning, students have reported increased workloads, exhaustion, and academic integrity concerns. However, in-person classes will not be accessible for all students, such as those with chronic conditions that may increase risk of severe COVID symptoms. Because of this, Penn must make sure that every class has an option to participate virtually, so that students do not have to choose between their health and their academic interests.
Even though most students will likely be vaccinated next fall, some may still face barriers which make it hard for them to participate in in-person classes. Students who are at high risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 may choose not to return to a dense campus environment, even if they are vaccinated. Additionally, some international students may not be able to receive vaccines in their home countries, or they may face challenges obtaining visas or traveling to Philadelphia amid pandemic restrictions. To accommodate these groups, Penn should allow students to complete their course loads fully virtually if they so choose.
Some might argue that these students could be accommodated if Penn offered virtual options for only a subset of courses, such as large lectures. However, such a proposal would run contrary to the University’s academic mission. If students learning virtually had fewer courses to choose from than their peers, they would be placed at an academic disadvantage due to factors out of their control, such as medical conditions, disability, or hometown. Additionally, this could lead to difficulty staying on track in their majors and completing graduation requirements if they could not take core classes at the same time as their peers on campus.
Offering a virtual option for all classes will also ensure that students will not fall behind if they need to miss class temporarily. There likely will be some COVID-19 cases on campus next fall, which may force many students to miss in-person classes due to illness or quarantine. If students are unable to join their classes through Zoom or at least listen to lecture recordings, many will fall far behind, especially if they cannot attend class in person for extensive periods of time. Additionally, before the pandemic, many students felt pressured to attend class while sick for fear of missing material or losing attendance points. Given the threat that COVID-19 poses, this is not acceptable. Penn must create policies that incentivize students to stay home when sick, and a virtual option is an obvious solution.
Although many students are looking forward to the potential return of in-person learning, this change should not come at the expense of other students. Penn should consider the various constraints that students may face next fall and promote accessibility by ensuring that every class has an option to participate virtually.
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