The Spring 2022 semester was supposed to begin this week, but instead, a series of Zoom meetings were held in lieu of in-person teaching. On January 12th, Penn announced that indoor events will remain suspended "until in-person classroom instruction resumes." The announcement did not extend the online quiet period further, but also did not explicitly confirm that classes will definitely be held in-person after January 24th. Students shouldn’t hold their breath: similar announcements have been reversed in the past.
The problem with continuing online until the situation improves is that the university has not indicated its metrics for going back into the classroom: is it campus test positivity rate? Number of cases? Number of symptomatic cases? Number of ICU beds in Philadelphia? Any of these metrics might lead to different dates of return, and the university has not published statistical thresholds for changing its policies. This was understandable in 2020, before vaccines existed and it was difficult to know what to expect. But in 2022, this sense of limbo is unjustified. It forces instructors to plan for multiple possible scenarios and exacerbates the anxiety that many students are already experiencing.
Penn needs to take decisive action and confirm that these two weeks of online classes will be the last time online classes are held due to COVID-19. Every additional day of Zoom meetings in lieu of in-person instruction is a blow to student mental health, learning, and equity— none of which are justified anymore.
The shift to online learning comes as the East Coast experiences a soaring number of COVID-19 infections, increasingly made up of the new, less severe Omicron variant. As COVID-19 continues to mutate, it appears on its way to becoming an endemic, seasonal virus. And this time, officials are increasingly arguing against lockdowns and other socially restricting measures. But universities are taking the opposite approach: Some colleges have COVID-19 policies stricter than those practiced in nursing homes, despite the fact that the risk of dying from COVID-19 is 370 times greater for the elderly compared to people aged 18-29. For young people, the health risks of COVID-19 are negligible unless they have a compromised immune system or certain pre-existing health conditions. According to the CDC, as of early December, people aged 18-29 in the US had a less than 0.0001% chance of dying with COVID-19. In the Omicron era, this risk for hospitalization and death is now even lower.
Why are universities like Penn still on Zoom? Perhaps because they can afford to be. Penn has consistently followed precedents set by competitive ‘peer institutions.’ They seem to share the assumption that students at these schools are paying for a name brand rather than an education, so will readily pay the same fees for what is basically a correspondence degree. Students at elite institutions may fear disciplinary, reputational, or professional consequences for voicing any opposition to the regulations. But an education should be more than a stamp on a diploma, and students should feel entitled to make their institutions answer to their needs.
As a TA in 2020-21, I saw students Zooming in to class in wildly different circumstances: Large, comfortable family homes, shoebox dorms, shared space with family or friends trying to work at the same time. Spotty Wifi or time differences made it hard or impossible for some to contribute. Some left their cameras off and never spoke. I have no idea if they were even there.
Instructors were rightly told to give students accommodations because everyone was going through a lot. I heard from students struggling with serious mental health issues, roommates in the midst of weeks-long quarantines after exposure, students who needed time out to attend multiple funerals. These struggles were not equally distributed among the student population. It is well-documented that those who struggle the most due to online learning are disproportionately non-white, first-generation, and low-income students. What stuns me is that an institution nominally committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion would advocate a policy that essentially ties its students’ learning outcomes to the income of their parents.
The shift to online learning was ostensibly motivated by a concern for students’ health and safety; in reality students are less well and less safe as a result of it. The consequences of prolonged lack of in-person instruction for college students in terms of learning loss and student mental health are becoming increasingly apparent. Over the remote learning period, peer institutions like Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton and UNC Chapel Hill have incurred few fatalities due to COVID-19, but on the other hand have all suffered a grim uptick in student suicides. In addition, Penn’s COVID-related dorm closures in the past have left some students temporarily homeless, or sent them ‘home’ into unsafe living situations. RAGAs, many of whom rely on free housing, were particularly mistreated. FGLI students have, again, been disproportionately impacted by the delayed move-in this month. Dissatisfied by remote learning, over tenfold more students have opted to take time off from their studies than before COVID-19.
Administrative fear of students testing positive for COVID-19 made sense in the pandemic’s early days. But now, Penn students must soon receive a booster shot, free on-demand PCR tests which return results well within 48 hours remain readily accessible, and several effective treatments for COVID-19 are available in Penn hospitals with Penn insurance. Before, there was a real risk of a campus outbreak, potentially endangering the city at large. But Philadelphia has effectively made vaccines compulsory with its new vaccine passport program, and the majority of Philadelphian adults have had at least one vaccine dose.
When cases are no longer meaningful in terms of health or safety, why the panic around numbers? The only rationale behind Penn’s policies seems to be liability and an irrational fear of reputational damage: Penn-funded events cheerily carried on all last semester just a block or two off campus at cramped bars and restaurants, but on-campus venues still cannot serve food or drink. Anthony Fauci said this week that "Virtually everybody" will get COVID-19. It’s just most convenient for Penn if that cannot be traced to campus. Obviously, students and instructors with health conditions who are at risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms must be accommodated by virtual alternatives. But at this phase of the pandemic, holding the entire, vaccinated community to 2020 standards has nothing to do with protecting people and everything to do with optics. It’s time to end this cynical attitude.
Penn holds a responsibility to its students. Come January 24th, I hope most of us are clicking ‘End Meeting’ for good.
HALLIE SWANSON is a PhD candidate and TA in the Department of Religious Studies, and SASGov’s Vice President for Social Affairs. Her email is email@example.com.