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Students taking ARCH 602 had to wear masks and work at desks lined with plexiglass this past spring semester. Credit: Kylie Cooper

With just a week until fall classes begin, some instructors are improvising their own COVID-19 classroom safety measures while asking for further guidance from Penn.

The University announced plans to conduct the fall semester fully in person in April as vaccinations became widely available, but now — two months later — Philadelphia has reached high levels of virus spread, as the more contagious Delta variant has caused yet another surge in nationwide cases. 

University guidelines currently require all Penn community members to wear masks indoors and submit proof of vaccination or receive a medical or religious exemption, reinforcing the city's existing mandates, with exceptions in instructional settings where permission is granted. Still, some instructors have taken steps to implement their own protocols in light of the surge in cases linked to the Delta variant, with some instructors calling on administration to allow for greater flexibility in teaching courses virtually.

Professors react to guidelines from University officials

On Friday morning, faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences received an email from SAS Dean Steven Fluharty reiterating Penn's current mask and vaccine mandates and testing policies, French lecturer Lisa Ann Britton told The Daily Pennsylvanian on Aug. 20.

Vice Provost for Education Karen Detlefsen's team is currently creating a faculty handbook that reinforces best practices for in-person instruction and compliance with public health guidelines, according to Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé.

But as of Tuesday, about 180 Penn faculty and graduate student instructors have signed a petition urging administration to allow instructors to decide whether they would prefer to teach in person or online, according to a tweet by Senior Associate director at the Center for Teaching and Learning Ian Petrie. 

With the recent spike in cases caused by the Delta variant, Britton predicts classroom safety will be an ongoing conversation with other instructors as they await further guidance from Penn.

“I think the University has been trying to communicate with us as often as they can when they have information, but I feel like this variant took people by surprise,” Britton said. “I think it’s requiring them to figure out [what] the official policy [is] going to be.”

A professor, who asked to remain anonymous due to the uncertainty of University safety guidelines, also speculated that administrators are likely still deliberating classroom policies in light of Delta.

The professor also expressed concern for the safety of faculty members in the classroom, particularly instructors who have unvaccinated or family members with weakened immune systems.

"I think Delta really changed how people are feeling," the professor said. "The conversations we had in the spring and early in the summer — just based on seeing the low incidents of breakthrough cases — everyone was feeling really good about going back to the way things were."

Professors make their own COVID-19 guidelines

As the Delta variant threat looms large, instructors are creating their own safety guidelines for the classroom.

Britton will teach FREN 140: "Intermediate French" and FREN 202: "Advanced French," which each have a maximum capacity of 15 students. Her courses will be held in Williams Hall, where Britton will have enough space to distance students if necessary.

In addition to social distancing, Britton is devising other strategies to remain safe during class. The foundation of language courses is collaborative work; though instead of rotating partners, students may work with the same student each time to reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19. Due to the difficulty of communicating with masks, Britton said, the courses will use techniques to communicate visually with other students.

Third-year graduate student Destiny Crockett, who is teaching ENGL 200: "Black Feminism and the Archive," said she will also try implementing social distancing measures this semester. Crockett anticipates implementing distancing will be easy due to the size of the course, which has a maximum capacity of eight students.

Large lecture courses are also devising safety strategies for the upcoming semester.

Mathematics lecturer Andrew Cooper will teach MATH 114: "Calculus II," a course with a maximum capacity of 60 students. Cooper, who is the coordinator for all MATH 114 courses, said the department is adapting its calculus classes this semester with maximum capacities having been reduced from 250 to 60 students for the fall, and lectures have been reduced from three times a week to once a week with an additional recitation.

The new method teaches calculus in a flipped model initially implemented during virtual learning, with students expected to continue engaging with virtual instructional videos and readings and to work collaboratively in person. The department planned to implement these changes prior to the pandemic, but they are also beneficial to protecting the health of students and instructors, Cooper said.

Like Britton, Cooper will create other strategies for collaborative work. It will be difficult to socially distance students, Cooper, but students will be given the option to participate in group work through tools like Google Docs, in addition to a reduction in lecture time.

Math instructors are conscious of the contagiousness of the Delta variant and that students may experience health-related anxieties returning to in-person learning, Cooper said.

"We haven't received any guidance about enforcing [social distancing], but we definitely want to make it an option, so if students are uncomfortable, they can maintain that distance if needed," Cooper said.

Faculty members have also been instructed to be more lenient with attendance policies for students who experience health concerns or are uncomfortable attending class, according to Cooper.

Executive Director of Operations and Maintenance of Facilities Faramarz Vakilizadeh said that in addition to individual classroom safety measures, each classroom will be provided with disinfectant wipes for students and professors to wipe down surfaces when entering and leaving the room. He emphasized the importance of following safety protocols inside and outside of the classroom.

"I think that extra effort collectively will go a long way," Vakilizadeh said.