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Credit: Louis Zhang

Penn's new block scheduling system has introduced some challenges for students this year, creating inefficient break periods, preventing them from registering for certain classes, and raising social distancing concerns.

The fall 2021 semester marks the beginning of the University's new block schedule format, which created standardized class start times and eliminated the possibility of back-to-back classes. University administrators told The Daily Pennsylvanian in February that the new schedule aims to ease the course selection process by reducing course conflicts and encourage wellness on campus by providing breaks between classes. Just weeks into the semester, however, students are voicing concerns about the convenience and safety of the new schedule.

Challenges in fulfilling degree requirements

The block schedule has made it difficult for some students, particularly dual-degree students, to schedule courses across different schools at Penn.

Jocelyn Chin, a junior in the Engineering School studying chemical and biomolecular engineering, said her engineering classes conflict with classes she needs for her planned minor in sustainability and environmental management offered by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School. With the new block schedule, she may be unable to complete the minor, Chin said.

“I might not be able to fulfill my minor now that all the classes are kind of happening at the same time blocks,” Chin said. “I definitely think there's a lot less flexibility, and I think they make it especially hard for engineers to do anything outside of engineering.”

Under the new format, classes start at one of eight designated start times beginning at 8:30 a.m. and ending at 8:30 p.m., with the latest classes ending at 10 p.m. Classes will run for either 60, 90, or 180 minutes, and students will have at least 15 minutes between classes. 

Like Chin, Yein Yoon, a junior in the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research studying chemistry and material science and engineering, said she struggled to register for her dual-degree requirements due to the new scheduling system. She added that further scheduling conflicts may prevent her from graduating on time and that an extra semester or year at Penn would be a significant financial burden to her as an international student from Korea without financial aid.

Yoon had planned out her junior year course calendar during her first year at Penn and planned to take her chemistry and MSE major courses this semester. The new block schedule, however, led to time conflicts for all her MSE major requirements, forcing Yoon to instead enroll in several general education courses this fall. Now, Yoon said she has to take four to five MSE courses in the fall of her senior year, while she works on graduate school applications. 

“I was planning all my electives in my senior year so that I can be more chill, and so that I don’t stress out about school stuff,” Yoon said. “It’s a huge change in my plans because of the conflicts.”

COVID-19 social distancing concerns

The new standardized class times have created social distancing concerns for some who have noticed that Locust Walk is more crowded this year, as many students walk to their classes at similar times. 

College senior Alexandria Raday noticed that Locust Walk and many buildings on campus are more packed than before the new block schedule was implemented, raising concerns about a potential spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant on campus. 

“It's just so crowded now,” Raday said. “There are a lot of people, and with this Delta variant, things are spreading faster.” 

Because of the higher volume of students, Wharton and College junior Carson Sheumaker said he would like to see the professors sanitize their classrooms more frequently. 

"I'd really like to see more cleaning procedures in between classes like they said there was going to be,” Sheumaker said. 

This is also the first year Penn is requiring that all sophomores, in addition to first years, live on campus as part of the Second-Year Experience. New College House West opened at the start of the semester and houses around 450 students. 

Unproductive break periods

Multiple students have expressed their frustration over the 45-minute break periods in between classes, with some describing them as unnecessary and inefficient.

“I go from 8:30 to 5:00 but have these random 45-minute breaks, and I'd rather end early,” Chin said, adding that the breaks are not enough time to be productive, which forces her to stay up later at night in order to finish her work. 

College senior Alexandria Raday added that because there is not enough time to study efficiently during the breaks, she is not sure what to do during those 45-minute periods. Sheumaker similarly believes the breaks in between classes are unnecessary.

“Even going from Engineering to Huntsman Hall, if I had some pep in my step, I could get there on time [before the block schedule system],” he said. “It’s definitely easier to do now, but I think the cost is like an extra hour every day. And I personally don't think it's worth it.”

Chin said the previous system’s ability to schedule classes back-to-back was more efficient, as she would have the same number of classes each day but end by the early afternoon. Yoon and Raday both added that their days have become much "longer" due to the block schedule.

“It’s definitely given me stress in terms of planning stuff. Also, just because my day got longer, I feel like I have less time to work on my own stuff,” Yoon said. 

Since the new schedule allows for more time between classes, some professors are choosing to utilize the entire class period rather than ending 10 minutes earlier, as they would have in the old schedule. The schedule does not require professors to teach for this extra time, University administrators had previously clarified to the DP after several faculty members reported unclear communication.

Still, some students are optimistic about the new block schedule system. 

Engineering sophomore Katherine Han, who has never experienced the old scheduling system in person, finds the new schedule to be organized.

"I feel like I'm more in sync with my friends, so that's the benefit. And it makes the class times easier to remember,” Han said. But she agrees that some of the break periods, like her 45-minute break between classes, are "awkward" durations.

Raday added that she hopes to adjust to the block schedule going forward.

“I think they're definitely going to be something to get used to, but I'm sure there's more benefits than we think now, I hope so,” Raday said.