This is The Daily Pennsylvanian’s final issue until the fall, and hopefully the last with full pandemic restrictions in place. In the spirit of reflection and commemoration, the DP’s opinion staff grades how we — as a university and as a community — responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The First-Year Experience: C
While Penn did open up the campus to first-year students during the second semester of the 2020-2021 academic year, the “first-year experience” was far from traditional. Penn held New Student Orientation online, with virtual preceptorials that gave students a look into various aspects of Penn life. However, this orientation did a poor job of facilitating interactions between first-year students, a burden that was largely carried by the class committee and later class board. Despite on-campus living options, Penn restricted on-campus activities significantly, with unequal enforcement and minimal transparency for students. This resulted in difficulties for in-person engagement and therefore inhibited the first-year experience. Hopefully, Penn will allow the Class of 2024 to relive their “first-year experience” as sophomores starting in the fall.
Housing and Dining: B
Penn made a substantial effort to enrich the dining experience throughout the semester. Hill’s dining hall gradually implemented new meal options in response to student dissatisfaction, including a pasta toss and omelette bar. Near the end of the semester, Penn also created new avenues to use meal swipes, namely at Houston Market and Gourmet Grocer. However, the University was largely unable to enforce COVID-19 housing guidelines, prompting numerous resident advisors to step down in late January. Additionally, Penn’s decision to mandate second-year dining as an extension of the Second-Year Experience was not well received, for it used community-building as an excuse to force unwilling students to purchase a dining plan.
Virtual Classes: C
With online learning necessitated by the pandemic, all students expected classes to look different. How different, however, seemed to be left up to luck. Some professors and departments made accommodations for students, like administering open-note exams, which were much appreciated. Yet the unrelenting workload of classes often reflected faculty's poor understanding of students' mental wellness and capabilities. Additionally, some courses, most notably MATH 104, shifted entirely to asynchronous lectures, eliminating opportunities for professor-student engagement. This was especially challenging for first-year students, who, without relationships with faculty and their classmates, struggled to feel as though they were part of the Penn community.
STEM Research: B
It was great that Penn’s research facilities stayed open to undergraduates for nearly the whole semester; even with a spike in cases in early February, only the Perelman School of Medicine briefly shut down. Research at Penn is normally accessible to all Penn students. However, limiting lab capacities made professors wary of accepting new members, making it difficult for new students to begin research or switch between in-person labs. Although these precautions are understandable, this generated an unfair divide between those who were lucky enough to have research prior to the pandemic, and those who may now be a full year behind on their research goals.
Campus Health Transparency: C+
Transparency was an essential part of keeping the Penn community updated on the COVID-19 situation on campus, and Penn’s approach to this crucial information was nothing short of opaque. The COVID-19 dashboard’s once-a-week updates, paired with little information about where the positive cases were clustered (such as by class year or College House), did little more than keep students in the dark when case counts skyrocketed — a March DP survey found 69% of students did not believe it was updated frequently enough. Better communication and more frequent updates could have helped create a more responsible campus culture, but instead we ended up with weekly Russian roulette.
Greek Life: D
Tracing the roots of Penn’s COVID-19 outbreaks early in the semester leads back to one source: Greek life. Between downtown events and crowded, maskless indoor gatherings, it was unsurprising that a large correlation was found between Greek life events and COVID-19 cases. Penn neglected to take many concrete steps in punishing the fraternities, which were primarily responsible for these violations, instead opting to send emails warning students of the repercussions of Student Campus Compact violations. The only positive aspect of Greek life this semester was the opportunity it provided for first-year and transfer students both on and off campus to find a sense of community in an otherwise isolating period of time.
While the effort made by many clubs to stay afloat throughout the pandemic was laudable, the virtual format didn’t lend itself well to the overall experience. The student-created Penn Clubs website hosted multiple virtual activity fairs, allowing students to preview and connect with Penn’s hundreds of clubs. But because socializing is a crucial part of many campus organizations, the isolating nature of virtual meetings made it difficult for students to find a close sense of community. Additionally, the brutal recruitment process for many clubs remained, isolating many international students who were forced to adapt to entirely different time zones. Nevertheless, many students found ways to overcome the social obstacles of the pandemic and make clubs into a generally positive experience.
Penn has tried to stay sustainable despite COVID-19, but its efforts are nothing to write home about. When Penn Dining started using take-out containers and bags to meet COVID-19 regulations, they also started the Green2Go program (using reusable containers), gave out cloth dining bags, and posted signage on sorting recycling to decrease overall waste produced. These solutions were mediocre, since few students used Green2Go and images of improper recycling frequently circulated online. That said, Penn Sustainability deserves credit for continuing to run social media and host virtual events, and 2020 did see an overall drop in carbon emissions and waste generation due to the pandemic.
Mental Health and Engagement Days: B-
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of emotional desolation for many around the world: fear of illness, financial concerns, and loneliness have contributed to anxiety and depression for millions, and Penn students are no exception. For the most part, Penn has tried to work with students on this, with Counseling and Psychological Services hiring new clinicians since the pandemic’s onset, adapting counseling and psychiatric services to a virtual format, and maintaining a presence through the 24/7 helpline. Yet Penn’s scant offering of holidays (with only several engagement days sprinkled throughout the semester in lieu of spring break) has forced students to cope with an unrelenting workload with minimal time off. In fact, many Penn students have not found engagement days to be true opportunities for relaxation. The overall theme of pandemic mental health? An overburdened counseling center scrambling to meet the demands of the administration’s unsympathetic schedule.
Grading and Academic Integrity: B-
With easy access to textbooks, notes, and the internet, “Zoom University” has created an environment where cheating runs rampant. While Canvas has many technologies in place to detect academic dishonesty and professors have developed tactics such as live proctoring, students managed to find ways to gain unfair and unethical advantages. And with a lack of evidence proving any form of misdemeanor, grades unfortunately reflect a false sense of achievement from students not necessarily putting in the work. Even with the implementation of pass/fail, students continued to take advantage of the school’s inability to crack down on cheating. However, in terms of grades and their impact on mental health, the pass/fail option provided a significant benefit to students as they struggled to navigate the academic and social challenges of a virtual college experience.
Support of the West Philadelphia Community: C+
Early on, it was clear that major campus decisions were being made without community consultation. Our West Philadelphia neighbors worried from the start that the return to campus would “literally kill people.” Nearly five months later, city data shows the 19104 zip code to have among the highest total numbers of COVID-19 cases in the city (no recent information was available related to COVID-19 hospitalizations or deaths by zip code). However, Penn Medicine and community partners have held a number of community-focused vaccination drives, including one in early February for people in the 1A and 1B categories. With all adults now eligible for free vaccines, Penn’s community partnerships will be essential in working towards the city’s herd immunity.
Contributing authors: Lexi Boccuzzi, Emily Chang, Alex Eapen, Isabella Glassman, Matthew Liu, Caroline Magdolen, Taja Mazaj, Alfredo Praticò, Varun Saraswathula, Valerie Wang, Andy Yoon
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