New configurations in campus housing and dining planned

Person wearing a mask walking past Class of 1920 Commons
Penn’s housing and dining experiences will be different in the upcoming academic year to accommodate social distancing. The Class of 1920 Commons is a dining hall on Locust Walk near several College House dorms. (Image: Eric Sucar)

Housing and dining experiences for Penn students will be markedly different in the upcoming academic year, due to precautions the University is implementing to keep students physically distant while maintaining a sense of community.

A website with plans for the fall semester includes a frequently asked questions section for housing and dining that is continually updated with the latest information.

headshot of administrator
Marie Witt is Penn’s vice president for Business Services. 

Penn is providing housing for all first- and second-year students who already had a room assignment. There will be only one person occupying each bedroom and a maximum of six sharing a bathroom. That plan has necessitated placing third- and fourth-year students in Sansom Place East, a campus high-rise that traditionally houses graduate students, or in off-campus housing through master leases secured by the University.

First-year students are typically required to live on campus, but the University has waived that requirement for those who live locally and feel they would do better commuting, as well as those who want to remain home and take all their classes remotely.

Because eating, like sleeping, is something people do without a mask, the dining experience will be very different as well. At the beginning of the school year, rather than indoor dining and group seating, meals will be prepackaged and ready for pickup, or students can pre-order using the Penn Eats Mobile App.

Penn Today spoke with Marie Witt, vice president of business services, about housing and dining plans. 

What are key questions from students and families about housing?  

We are hearing from students that they very much want to be near original roommates and their friends. Although the need to ensure single-occupancy bedrooms and appropriate ratio of students sharing a bathroom creates a unique and complicated challenge, we are embracing their feedback. Even though it may not be possible to keep all roommate groups intact, we are doing our very best to get them on the same floor or in the same building.

As much as you hope to be with that roommate—and we will get you as close as we can get you—we encourage students see this is an opportunity to meet new people and expand their community at Penn.

What should students and families expect from dining?   

Everyone should know that dining will be there for them. Our priorities are health and wellness, safety and dependability. The meals will be the same quality and options for special dietary needs will be available. It will all be take-out, at least in the beginning, but we will have a variety of hot and cold options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night. And, if students become ill, we will make sure they have meals delivered to them.

We also know eating with friends is an important part of dining, and we are trying to find creative ways to address that. We may be able to allow up to 30 percent of normal indoor seating eventually, but we want to be very conservative in the beginning. We are looking to possibly activate outdoor tented areas where we can spread out the tables and chairs to accommodate socially distanced seating. College Houses are looking for ways to have informal meals together in smaller groups to try to maintain community.

What will be different about move-in this year?   

Usually, first-year students move in over one or two days. This year the resident and graduate assistants will move in on Aug. 19-20, and the students will start on Aug. 21 with the goal of getting everyone moved in by Aug. 31 before classes begin on Sept. 1. We are extending the time period so we can maintain the necessary physical distancing in elevators, hallways, and other common areas.

We are allowing guests, but there is a limit of one visitor at a time, so families or friends may have to take turns helping. All guests will have to register, and they will have to wear facial coverings.

What are some of the procedures being put in place as a result of pandemic restrictions?  

We’ve worked with many individuals across campus who have provided incredible guidance to helping us develop good practices. We have masks. We have gloves. We have enhanced cleaning protocols. We are installing programmable locks for Penn Card admittance to bathrooms. The bathrooms will be fully cleaned twice a day, and we are asking students to participate in cleaning as part of their social compact, to wipe down the bathrooms after each use.

We will be cleaning high-touch common areas more frequently, including the entry portals, doorknobs, elevator buttons. Entry will require only a tap with a Penn Card, rather than also inputting a PIN, so as to eliminate contact with the keypad. We will limit the number of people who use the elevators at one time and ask people in the lower floors to take the stairs. We are putting plexiglass partitions at the front desks, cashier stations, and other areas.

We will also have a quarantine space for students who do become ill. We set aside all of Sansom Place West for that purpose. We will move students there and provide support services for them.

How has the housing and dining team met the many challenges?   

This team has been nothing less than heroic, all the way back to when the University decided to ask students to leave campus in March. They worked to facilitate the students’ move off of campus, to get students home, to either pack and ship or pack and store their belongings, and to make sure those who could not travel had a place to stay and figure out how to feed those students, all on top of the planning for what would happen in the fall.

And now they are working on all the details: how many single bedrooms, how many bathrooms, bedroom assignments, bathroom assignments, move-in logistics, and more. It’s incredibly complex and a high volume of work. The core team of 30 has been working nonstop for the last four or five months.

We’ve had questions we’ve never confronted before and processes we’ve never done before. We are reinventing housing and dining in ways we never anticipated. We are dedicated to creating a positive student experience in these unusual circumstances.

Is there anything you would like to add to help students and families prepare for the fall?  

First, I know everyone is anxious to learn where they are living and what their dining plans will look like, and I ask for a little more patience. This is new for all of us, but we are committed to providing the information they need as soon as we can. We expect assignments to be announced the third full week of July.

Secondly, an important part of the college experience is having the chance to meet new people, forge new friendships, and work through challenges with creativity and resilience. I truly believe the sense of a social compact, along with students surmounting challenges together and as a community, is a bonding opportunity and I think they will create relationships and shared memories that are positive. And we will do everything in our power to support them in this journey.