Students reported feeling both excited and cautious about Penn’s announcement to reopen completely in the upcoming fall semester, citing increased chances to socialize but concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19.
The University announced in an email to the Penn community on June 24 that it planned on returning to a more "normal" fall semester, with in-person classes and fewer COVID-19 restrictions than the previous semester.
Some students said that they were looking forward to socializing on campus after two semesters of online learning. For some students, it would be their first time stepping on campus.
Rising College sophomore Daniel Xu had studied from home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during both fall 2020 and spring 2021 even though on-campus housing had been available in the spring. He said that it was difficult to be involved in clubs when everyone was on campus last spring and that he felt left out when he could not be as involved as he expected.
Despite this, Xu said that he felt optimistic for the upcoming fall semester and looked forward to returning to a sense of normalcy after over a year of the pandemic.
“It’s very exciting to be able to see the few people that I know,” Xu said. "It’s going to be a soft reset.”
Dangela Fonseca, who is also a rising College sophomore who has never been on Penn's campus before, said that she felt “nervous and excited.” She said that while she may be unfamiliar with the physical campus, the online semester gave her the connections necessary to feel confident.
“I plan on keeping in touch with [those whom] I’ve made friends with,” Fonseca says. “[I'm going to] ask them, ‘Hey, How did you do this on campus? How does this even work?'"
Despite their excitement, students said they are still worried about the possibility of contracting COVID-19. The rapidly spreading Delta variant is now responsible for about 82% of COVID-19 cases across the nation, according to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers.
Fonseca said she felt a sense of uncertainty and concern about “how the pandemic will progress" and was worried about staying safe considering the in-person semester.
“My health is just something I don’t want to play with,” Fonseca said. “We’re not fully protected from a virus just [because] we’re young. I’m not willing to take any risks.”
Concerning the loosened COVID-19 restrictions, Xu said that Penn should continue its safety protocols that prevent the spread of the disease, including regular COVID-19 screening and social distancing measures.
“I wouldn’t complain — [even] if you’ve been vaccinated — [if] people required masks indoors,” he said. “I’d be happier if there was more testing even for vaccinated people.”
Rising Wharton senior Rania Zakaria reported feeling “panicked” and “frustrated” when she found out that she had to return to campus. With an immunocompromised mother, Zakaria is still concerned about the spread of COVID-19. In fact, one of the medicines that Zakaria’s mother has to take was found to reduce vaccine efficacy, she said.
“It’s always better to be cautious when you’re in a situation like she is," she said.
Zakaria was hoping to spend this coming semester virtually at home in Indianapolis, Indiana. When the University first announced its plans for fall 2021, she was optimistic that there would still be an option for those who needed to study remotely. However, Zakaria later learned that the only way to avoid being on campus in the fall would be to take an official leave of absence.
Her current lease – which is in Indianapolis – expires in October, leaving her without a place to live in Philadelphia this fall.
“I felt really alone and isolated,” Zakaria said. “I don't really have any friends who are in a similar situation. Most of my friends are really excited to go back.”
Zakaria said through social media, she found other students who were similarly concerned about returning to Penn’s campus in the fall semester.
“[I hope] people will realize that not everyone is just dying to come back,” Zakaria said. “I don’t want to keep attending 'Zoom University,' but you do what you've got to do for the people you love.”