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09-02-21-hurricane-ida-flooding-schuylkill-river-overflowing-jesse-zhang
The Schuylkill River Trail was submerged underwater due to flooding, as seen on Thursday morning. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Penn suspended all University operations on Thursday — but some professors and teaching assistants didn't realize that meant online classes, too.

The University notified the Penn community at 6:38 a.m. on Thursday that all classes were canceled due to flooding, with the exception of certain clinical programs. Some professors assumed that only in-person classes were canceled and planned to hold class on Zoom before receiving further communication from administrators that no classes could be held.

The situation — which some professors allege to be the result of poor communication from administration — left both students and professors feeling confused and frustrated.

Once the administration became aware of nonclinical undergraduate classes meeting remotely, administrators sent an email to the Council of Undergraduate Deans reiterating that all classes should be canceled, regardless of the format, University spokesperson Stephen J. MacCarthy wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Deans were instructed to share the message with course instructors. MacCarthy added that if instructors did hold a remote class today, they should not assess students on material that was covered. 

In the interest of keeping up with course material, allowing students to "shop" their class before the add/drop period ended, or to offset time lost by the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah that coincides with classes next week, some professors said they planned to hold virtual classes today. When they received additional communication from administrators, most quickly canceled their classes. 

CHEM 102: "General Chemistry II" professor Donald H. Berry said he initially planned to hold class virtually at 1:45 p.m. on Thursday. Berry reversed his decision after receiving an email from the School of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office around noon, clarifying that classes were canceled “in any form of delivery, including remotely.”

Like Berry, Calabi-Simons Professor in Mathematics and Biology Yoichiro Mori chose to hold his course BIOL 215: "Vertebrate Physiology" virtually before abruptly canceling his plans. Mori said he reversed course after a colleague in the School of Engineering and Applied Science forwarded him an email from the associate dean of undergraduate education for the Engineering School around 11 a.m. clarifying that no classes were to be held on Thursday.

The misunderstanding could probably have been avoided if administrators had sent a clearer initial message stating that all classes were canceled regardless of format, he said. 

To make up for missed class time, Mori said that he will try to lecture more efficiently and consider adding supplemental videos to the course.

ENGL 261: "Representations of the Holocaust" was held on Zoom during the normally scheduled class time on Thursday afternoon, despite the administration's regulations. Professor Al Filreis did not immediately respond to the DP's request for comment about why he chose to proceed with class.

Engineering senior Emily Gelb said she was glad that she had the opportunity to attend the class virtually and participate in a productive and meaningful discussion.

"It functioned really well. There are some definite benefits to Zoom breakout rooms and being able to see everyone," Gelb said, adding that everyone had their cameras on and was engaged with the course material.

Some TAs also held classes virtually before realizing that no classes were supposed to be held online.

Second-year Ph.D. student and ANCH 026: "Ancient Greece" TA Matthew Reichelt held two recitation sections with optional attendance before hearing from the course's professor that all classes were supposed to be canceled. Reichelt said he wanted to parse through introductory tasks, such as going over the syllabus, so that his section could jump into course material starting next week. 

“Zoom seemed like a fairly easy platform for us to get this out of the way ,” Reichelt said. 

He added that the other recitation sections for the course meet on Friday, and he did not want his Thursday section to be at a disadvantage.

Some students, however, felt more apprehensive about “optional” recitations. College junior Henry Nick, who is currently enrolled in BIOL 251: "Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology," said that his course was offering "optional" office hours during recitation time to discuss the first problem set. 

"I think it's going to give the people who attend an advantage, which is incentivizing people to go to class on this day off," Nick said. "Nobody wants to miss helpful information."

Now that students and faculty have experience with remote learning, it opens the door for holding class online amid severe weather.

“Having the technology and the familiarity now with doing remote [learning] means we have more flexibility and adaptability," Berry said. "As long as the added flexibility is applied in a way that doesn’t disadvantage anybody [it] is a good thing."

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