On Tuesday, College Dean Paul Sniegowski sent an email to students saying that Penn is optimistic the fall semester will be conducted in person. An in-person semester is certainly welcome news for Penn’s student body, many of whom expressed excitement when it resumed last month.
However, with the return of students on campus comes an increase in COVID-19 risk. Although Dean Sniegowski noted the risk of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms is relatively low, it is not zero. Moreover, students may easily be exposed to COVID-19 outside of the classroom. Although 97% of faculty and students are vaccinated, those with a positive COVID-19 test will be forced to quarantine.
Penn’s plans for accommodating quarantining students have thus far been inadequate. In the Dean’s email, he said the School of Arts and Sciences has urged instructors to make class materials, such as recordings, lecture notes, and office hour access, available for those students who must miss class due to exposure. While this is a good first step, it is not enough; Penn instructors can vary wildly in their policies, and some professors may choose to be inflexible, incentivizing sick students to come to class. For the good of the student body, faculty, and other members of the Penn community, Penn must make flexibility across different classes mandatory. Specifically, the University must ensure that no student falls far behind or is punished for missing an exam, class, or recitation if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or exposure.
Even when faced with a mandatory policy change, professors do not always follow University direction. For example, on Sept. 2, Penn suspended operations, which meant the cancellation of all classes. However, some professors did not follow this directive, instead holding classes via Zoom. If a mandatory order isn’t entirely effective on its own, a voluntary directive will likely do even less.
Having flexibility would benefit students in several ways. Most obviously, it would allow them to focus on their health, rather than forcing them to attend class. In addition to keeping themselves safe, it will also prevent other students, staff, and University professors from being exposed to one source of potential COVID-19 cases.
Additionally, it’s not just students who would appreciate this flexibility. Recently, over 225 professors signed a letter requesting Penn allow instructors to make their own decisions on teaching classes in-person or online. While mandating flexibility for sick students won’t accomplish this, it would address one of the primary concerns for many of these professors: the possibility of coming into contact with students who are sick or have COVID-19.
Some may argue that making classes accessible through online learning makes class optional. However, there are ways to combat this. For example, professors could be asked to record classes if there are individuals under isolation, or who report being sick. In addition to requiring recordings under certain circumstances, the University could incentivize professors to record classes for all. Some professors have already indicated that they are doing as such, citing non-COVID-19 benefits of recorded classes.
For a year and a half, COVID-19 has disrupted all aspects of life, including academics. As the Penn community moves further in the fall semester, there will no doubt be future COVID-19 cases that hinder learning. To prevent this from being the case, the University must step up, and mandate accommodations for those students who cannot attend class due to quarantine, illness, or a positive test.
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