“Uncertainty” and “unprecedented” are the buzzwords of the past months. As the Penn community contemplates the fall semester, we realize that COVID-19 is not a brief disruption. Instead, this time of crisis is here to stay for at least one more semester, quite possibly longer. The effects of such non-normal levels of threat and exhaustion touch each individual in highly personal ways, and they are also experienced on a sliding scale of privilege.
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On June 25th, Penn announced it will operate with a hybrid model in the fall. While many undergraduate concerns, such as dorms and dining halls, are addressed in some detail, the implications for graduate students are left relatively open: “Students will be provided with details directly by their programs.” This makes sense: while college is a very communal experience, graduate and professional degrees are often highly specialized and students tend to exist mostly off-campus.
In a University announcement on June 16th, Penn’s leaders said, “On this year’s Juneteenth, which is this Friday June 19th, we ask members of the Penn community to take the day off of their regular work as an opportunity to contemplate the historical significance of Juneteenth and how we can learn from our past to chart a more equitable path forward.”
In 2020, we are forced to rethink the spaces that we use: a global health crisis has pushed everyone into the relative safety of their homes; a national anti-racism movement then brought many Americans back out into public space in highly visible ways. As a university community, the question of private and public is heightened for us at Penn – campus is both home and workplace for many of us: it’s where we engage with peers and professors, spend leisurely hours on the grass and in cafés, and work in libraries, labs, and classrooms. Doing the work remotely has significantly changed our experience of being part of the Penn community, and has limited access to some of the best and most important aspects of being at Penn. Our taken-for-granted collectivity came to a crashing halt, which is especially hard for those who have graduated before campus life was possible again.
When Penn moved classes online for the remainder of the semester, everyone was dazed. Faced with the unprecedented threat of COVID-19, we all complied and emptied out libraries, classrooms, even dorms, as a collective effort to stop a new, threatening, and fast-spreading virus. Now, our community is scattered across the world. Given recent communication from University leadership, there’s a chance we might be back on campus by September – but also a chance we might not. According to Bill Gates, even if everyone, including Penn’s own medical facilities, does everything they can to find a vaccine, this means of ending the current global health crisis could be anywhere from nine to 24 months away.