With the semester’s end and our moving, bittersweet virtual Commencement for the Class of 2020 only days behind us, we are writing to update you on our planning and preparations for the fall. At this time, predictions for the fall of the pandemic’s progression and our society’s capacities for testing, contact tracing and treatment are sufficiently uncertain that we cannot say with perfect clarity what the fall semester will look like. What we can say is that until a vaccine is widely available, and the threat of spreading the novel coronavirus remains real, even the best scenarios foresee a fall semester and a school year that requires new community-wide protocols and practices, unlike any other in Penn’s long history. We can assure you that Penn’s tradition of uncompromising excellence in education will continue.
We fervently hope to welcome our students back to campus in the fall and are working aggressively to prepare for that to occur, but we also know that the public health situation will dictate what is ultimately possible.
As we work through the unpredictable terrain of the next several months, our primary goal, clearly and unequivocally, is to minimize person-to-person transmission and protect the more vulnerable within our community while providing the atmosphere for an outstanding educational experience. To that end, the University convened a Recovery Planning Group comprised of Penn leaders in public health, academic engagement, clinical research, safety, and administrative operations. This group has been charged with navigating a path forward for the University to meet its critically important missions of education, research, patient care, and service while coexisting with COVID-19. While a daunting task, this is not an impossible one, and we remain confident that our University and Health System will move forward together to effectively and safely provide the best possible education to our students in the fall and the coming academic year.
We start from the fundamental premise that no emergency, no matter how dire, will prevent us from being Penn. We affirm, embrace, and recommit to the values that have sustained our institution for nearly 300 years. We are inspired and motivated by the many advances in technology that have enabled Penn scholars and students to continue the tradition of educational excellence, even at a distance required for health and safety. The speed and success with which our faculty, students, and staff embraced these changes illustrate why Penn is one of the most eminent research universities in the world. This reinforces our confidence in our capacity to carry on the vital work we do at Penn, even in the face of great uncertainty and constantly changing challenges.
In the interests of transparency in our decision-making, we take this opportunity to provide a summary of our current thinking, with many important things yet to be determined. All of us—in higher education and beyond—are navigating without a map. To find our way successfully in the year ahead requires us to adapt to changes quickly, adopt creative new approaches, and act always with the safety of our wonderfully diverse community foremost in mind.
To get this right, cooperation and communication are necessary, now more than ever. Where the old paths have ended, we must create new ones to lead us forward. The decisions we make as a university will need to be embraced and resolutely implemented by every member of our community. While there is no roadmap for our future, there is a deep and abiding legacy of trust, imagination, and innovation that makes Penn so special. Confident in our ability to meet any challenge and to thrive regardless of circumstances, we offer this candid summary of our current thinking of what lies before us as we look ahead to the fall semester and beyond.
In order to lay the groundwork for returning to normal campus operations as soon and safely as possible, we must plan for alternative campus scenarios and develop contingencies that are shaped by both government directives and public health considerations. Some of our activities are likely to commence before others; for example, we are confident that we can soon begin a phased process for resuming our research activities. Other activities—particularly our instructional, co-curricular, and student life activities—will likely continue to be impacted by the pandemic. For students to return, for instance, we need to be sure that we have better and more readily available testing, contact tracing, and isolation space for those who may test positive; capacity to provide appropriate distancing in housing and dining settings; and workable policies and practices for social gatherings, to name just a few considerations.
In light of the challenges before us, we want to share four major scenarios currently under consideration. Some of these could be productively combined. The four scenarios are:
- A hybrid experience with some in-person instruction. In a mostly online learning environment, classroom instruction would be offered for small seminars, research group meetings, experiential clinics, studios, and other courses enrolling no more than 25 students. These classes could be offered in lecture halls and other large venues that accommodate physical distancing and facial coverings and could even include newly installed Plexiglas barriers for separating lecturers from the audience. All larger classes of more than 25 students would be delivered online, even for those living on campus.
- An in-person experience ending at Thanksgiving break. In this scenario—compatible with the hybrid experience described above—the fall semester would begin and end on schedule, but all on-campus activities would conclude as Penn breaks for Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving, the remainder of the fall semester would be conducted online. In some cases, in order to ensure the required hours of instruction, some classes might schedule additional meetings in the early evening and/or on Saturdays.
- More robust summer course offerings in 2021. To maintain flexibility for our students, we could offer expanded class options, in addition to our current strong summer programming, during the summer of 2021, providing greater opportunities for earned academic credits and cohort-based experiential learning. This scenario is also compatible with the first two scenarios above and would enable us to accommodate an even wider range of educational needs and preferences.
- An entirely online experience for the fall semester. In the event that the pandemic precludes us from bringing students back to campus in the fall, we would then conduct all fall semester instruction, mentoring, and advising at a safe distance via technology. In this scenario, we would make every effort to bring students back to campus as soon as possible and to preserve class traditions, including for our entering Class of 2024. This scenario is distinct from the first two scenarios above but compatible with the third.
Undergraduate and graduate/professional scenarios will likely differ, given the variability of degree requirements and timelines, as well as the importance of clinics, labs, studios, practicums and other aspects of graduate/professional academic experiences.
If we are to convene on campus while the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak is still active, the ways in which we live, teach, study, research, and work will be different from what we have previously known. Every member of our community will need to commit to a collective effort to protect the overall safety of our campus, and we should all be fully aware and prepared to contribute to the health, safety, and well-being of our Penn community. To this end, we are evaluating the following:
- A “Public Health Social Compact.” This would require that all members of our Penn community agree to: wear facial coverings in public; practice physical distancing of at least six feet in public and in classrooms, and when possible in labs, libraries, and common spaces; avoid large gatherings of 25 or more people, including all co-curricular and extracurricular activities; be regularly tested for COVID-19 (and, if tested positive, agree to self-isolate and quarantine); self-report any COVID-19 symptoms; and, when possible, agree to teach, learn, work, and engage remotely.
- The importance of regular testing. In an environment in which the prevalence of COVID-19 is low enough to allow some or all students to return to campus, it will be important to have testing capability to detect new cases, based upon the best scientific recommendations in the coming months.
- New policies limiting travel. Travel from and returning to greater Philadelphia would be discouraged and, in those instances when travel is necessary, the person traveling would need to agree to self-isolate upon returning to campus. Our evolving guidelines for safe travel—in study abroad, travel on Penn-related business for faculty and staff, and travel to our campus by students and families and for meetings, talks, conferences, faculty recruitment, and other professional contexts—will need to rely on a wider global perspective, including guidance from the US Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Fewer students in the College House system. While our College House system is a traditional and vibrant aspect of student life at Penn, it thrives on undergraduates and faculty living and learning together in close quarters with programs that encourage interaction. We are evaluating various scenarios that would temporarily reduce the population in our College Houses and other student residences, as fewer students residing in dense proximity reduce the risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19. As we plan to keep residents safe, we also must consider managing the ratio of student residents to bathrooms and bathroom fixtures to best ensure a safe living environment.
- Dining halls with reservations and takeout. New approaches to dining may include a reservation system, which would limit the number of diners at any given time for purposes of physical distancing, or a take-out system of timed pickups locally in each College House.
- Being book smart and healthy. We must consider how to keep safe the many faculty, staff, students, and alumni who pass through our libraries. These high traffic areas contribute significantly to the Penn experience and require the best practices in public health, which may include limiting the number of patrons inside the libraries at a given time. Patrons should expect that the experience may be interrupted for deep cleaning of stacks, counters, computers, desks, and common spaces.
- Fitness and recreation. Highly utilized spaces such as the Pottruck Fitness Center would need to be operated with strict adherence to public health practices. Our community should expect that we may need to close or restrict access for deep cleaning, operate under restricted hours, or limit the number of those exercising at one time.
- Student life. A vast array of extracurricular and co-curricular activities on a college campus entail very close personal contact among many individuals. As our public health situation evolves, each of these must be evaluated to ascertain if some could be safely offered in smaller group settings, others possibly take place online. Our campus is also home to a thriving arts community that would not be able to mount exhibitions or present live performances for large audiences, and we are thinking through new ways in which we could bring these activities to the community through different approaches, including online platforms.
- University City. We should expect changes to our surrounding retail district, operating mostly for take-out and pick up and/or with limited numbers of patrons allowed inside.
In all activities, the University will continue to be guided by the expert medical and public health advice of the Perelman School of Medicine and the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Actions such as those outlined above may seem onerous and even limiting, but they are proven practices for preventing, or reducing, the spread of the virus. Staff who need to be on campus to perform their duties will continue on our current course. Staff who are able to perform their duties remotely will be asked to continue to work remotely as their jobs allow. This mandate will be re-evaluated as circumstances evolve, including scenarios that would enable us to bring staff back to campus in stages.
A phased return to research
Research is integral to our mission as a university and vitally important to our local, national, and global communities. In March, we discontinued all non-essential research for the health and safety of our campus, with narrowly defined exemptions including research that could have an immediate impact on the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now planning to resume research activities in three phases:
- Phase 1: Increase priority research, enforcing restrictions on population density and continuing remote work.
- Phase 2: Expand research operations, increasing the population with physical distancing and continuing remote work.
- Phase 3: Return to full research operations, benefitting from new hygiene practices and using remote work where possible.
In assessing the timing of these stages, we will be guided by our progress in minimizing risks to researchers, research subjects, patients, and the Penn community, while also mitigating adverse impacts on our world-leading research, especially promising research in its early stages and research in all areas related to COVID-19, which will continue to be our highest priority.
In conclusion, please be assured that, working together, we can sustain our highest traditions of excellence in teaching, learning, research, service, and patient care at Penn. We are deeply proud of the ways in which the Penn community has risen to the challenge of this pandemic. In the history of our great University, there has never been a challenge of the nature and magnitude that we face today. Navigating the year ahead will require us all to be creative, flexible, and resolute.
Despite the significant financial impact this crisis has had on the University, please know that we are deeply committed to doing everything possible to support our students, faculty, staff, patients, and all who are part of the Penn community.
We hope that we have been able to give you a clear sense of the questions that need to be resolved and the scenarios under consideration. Our goal is to notify you of more specific plans no later than the end of June. In the meantime, we wish you safety and good health and look forward to seeing all of you in person, as soon as that is possible.
Communications to students, faculty, and staff: