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Students walking on Locust Walk on Sept. 13.

Credit: Gundappa Saha

International students largely support in-person learning and Penn's COVID-19 mandates, but some want the University to implement more frequent testing and flexible learning options. 

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke to five students — from Hong Kong, Sudan, China, and Australia — who are excited for in-person learning, but concerned about cases in the United States compared to the more limited spread in their home countries. 

Several students said there is a major difference in the attitudes toward COVID-19 displayed by people in their home countries compared to people in the United States.

Wearing a mask during flu season is a normal thing to do in Hong Kong, Helen Yeung, a junior from Hong Kong in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, said, whereas she believes people in the United States do not view it that way. She added that while unmasking outdoors “makes sense to some extent,” most people in Hong Kong still wear masks, even outside. On campus, masks are required in all indoor public and shared spaces, but not for vaccinated individuals in outdoor spaces.

Similarly, Wharton junior Samir Thakore said that seeing people unmasked outdoors on campus was initially “a bit of a culture shock,” adding that students seem to have a very different mentality about getting COVID-19 than people do in Hong Kong. 

“I think people here seem to be like, ‘If I get it, I get it. I'll live with it,’ so that's sort of the feeling I get from what I've seen so far,” Thakore said. 

Thakore and Wharton junior Harry Hou both mentioned that they have friends in their home countries who are taking more serious precautions against COVID-19 — such as wearing two N95 masks in their classes — and who prefer virtual learning instead of being on campus. 

“A lot of my friends who have been in China for the entire time [of the pandemic] and just came back [to the United States] recently, I know that they see this from a completely different perspective,” Hou said. 

Unlike Yeung and Thakore's experiences in Hong Kong, Engineering junior Sarah Musa, who is from Sudan, said that she was often one of the only people wearing a mask when she was in Sudan during the summer. The country experiences regular spikes as a result of this, so Musa, along with the other students, said they appreciated Penn's masking mandates.

Since the resumption of in-person learning, Penn faculty members and administrators have been involved in an ongoing dialogue about virtual options and COVID-19 safety. 

This semester, classes are primarily in person, with a few exceptions because of departmental decisions and medical exemptions. Instructors who qualify for an exemption from in-person teaching have the option to request a medical accommodation through the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs. Faculty members with non-medical reasons, such as an immunocompromised family member, can also request accommodations from their department chair or dean. 

225 instructors recently petitioned Penn to allow faculty to make their own decisions about remote learning, citing concerns about a lack of social distancing and air circulation and instructors with unvaccinated family members. ​​Additionally, on Sept. 11, Penn's chapter of the American Association of University Professors sent a list of COVID-19 safety recommendations to administrators that included giving faculty the option to teach online – but the University has not budged. 

Most of the students  believe the University could increase the frequency of mandated COVID-19 testing for the Penn community, expressing concern about an increasing number of sick students still attending class. 

The University requires students to get tested twice a month and to complete the daily PennOpen Pass symptom checks.

Thakore said Penn should require weekly testing because some students may be infected and recover without ever knowing about it, contributing to asymptomatic spread on campus. 

Yeung similarly said that more frequent testing, especially for students who may have been in “risky places” or in contact with someone who has COVID-19, could be helpful in containing a potential outbreak. 

On the other hand, College senior Yiwei Chai said that because of high vaccination rates on campus, she believes that Penn is not testing “too infrequently.” Currently, 97% of Penn undergraduate students and faculty are vaccinated.

Yeung and Thakore said Penn's mask mandate and high vaccination rates are helpful in lessening COVID-19-related concerns, but they worry that transmission rates can increase if students with flu-like symptoms continue coming to class. 

“Emotionally, there's definitely excitement, but then hygiene-wise, I was pretty concerned,” Yeung said.  

Due to these concerns, Hou said he thinks the University has to balance the in-person experience with pandemic precautions.

“Penn, as an institution, should prioritize students, obviously," Hou said. "On one hand, everyone obviously wants a more in-person experience. That's what you signed up for. But on the other hand, COVID-19 is still very much a real thing."

Coming from Australia, Chai said she likes in-person classes but still finds it “a little bizarre” that her classrooms do not enforce social distancing guidelines.

Musa, who was grateful to get vaccinated at Penn during the spring 2021 semester, especially given that vaccine supply was limited in Sudan, said she is still worried about classmates who are not as careful about COVID-19 as she is.

“There's always the case of, is everyone else going to be as safe as I will be?” Musa said. 

After witnessing their own friends from back home follow more stringent COVID-19 precautions, some of the international students, particularly Thakore, support virtual learning options alongside in-person classes. 

Chai believes administrators should be more flexible with professors who have COVID-19-related issues and have to move class online, citing how one of her professors had difficulty getting permission to temporarily switch class to online after getting a red PennOpen Pass.

Thakore voiced support for instructors having the option to teach online as well, saying that older professors and instructors with young children should be given the option to teach online throughout the semester. He's hopeful that cases will stay under control and that in-person classes will continue, but said he is prepared for the worst case scenario of increased transmission and the transition of classes to online.

“I just hope that cases stay manageable, and things can continue, but I honestly wouldn't be surprised if they don't,” Thakore said.