Back to the Classrooms

With the onset of the Spring Semester, 2021, long drawn-out months of waiting to return to the classrooms finally came to an end; the MBA students could now set foot in the Jon M. Huntsman Hall to attend in-person classes in the Wharton’s limited in-person / hybrid model. I had particularly chosen courses that had in-person options and have been a regular in-person student since the first day of the semester.

On the first day of the semester, I took a SEPTA Route 21 bus that dropped me opposite to the Walnut Street entrance of the Huntsman. I looked at the building, a building so striking and poised, and my first day at Wharton flashed before my eyes. I took a moment to reflect … So much has changed in the world since that day … So much of me has changed, and it is not just the pandemic that stirred the globe, it is the reminder that ‘we are not in control’ that sent out a wave of frenzy forcing us to rethink our outlook of life.

But … we survived. Now, it was time to slowly resume normalcy. While the University had meticulously planned our safe return to campus for in-person classes; we had our responsibilities too. Not only was it important to comply with the Student Campus Compact (SCC) laid out by the University, but it was also crucial that we did our part in inspiring those around us to recommence life as we knew it in the pre-pandemic world, but now conscientiously following COVID-19 prevention guidelines outlined by Penn.

“I will be a hypocrite if I do not attend the in-person classes,” said Mike Sorrentino, a fellow MBA student, who, just like me, regularly attends in-person classes. I must mention here that it takes an additional layer of dedication to the ‘spirit of Wharton’ to shake off the morning / afternoon sloth to commute to school every day of the week in the presence of an alternative; but witness to the arduous rebellions of the raging student body when Fall 2020 was announced to be virtual, a lot of us expected MBA students to be fighting over the limited number of in-person seats. With such conjecture, the Wharton Seat Management Application came to exist. 

In this article, I am sharing my experience, thus far, with the limited in-person / hybrid model; particularly, I will talk about some of the mandates, the infrastructure, and what’s going well.

I have been the model in-person student, and on the first day of every course, I felt like a man on the moon, sharing his experience with those on the lonely planet. Each Professor asked me how I was feeling being back to the classroom. Soon, I started receiving emails and WhatsApp queries from other students who were preparing to get back on campus. The SCC is long and crammed with terms and conditions; it makes getting back to campus seem more grueling than it really is. So, let me start with some of the mandatory requirements for entry to the Huntsman. 

Some of the mandates:

Three levels of security, daily symptoms check and weekly COVID test … yes, that’s the firewall for COVID-19 prevention at Wharton. All UPenn buildings (or at least the ones commonly known) have access control system, but we never needed our PennCard to access the Huntsman before. Now, this is the first line of defense to curtail unauthorized entry. Also, the Walnut Street egress is now ‘exit only’, so center city people (almost all MBA students) have to walk some extra length to get to the entrance on the Locust Walk. Once you’ve used your PennCard to swing the door open, you will encounter a security personnel who will ask for your PennCard (again) and PennOpen Pass; there is no swiping or tapping at this level, it’s just a visual inspection. Then you enter the lobby, adorned with booths (pandemic-prevention additions), you are required to walk up to a booth, tap your PennCard to record your attendance, show your PennOpen Pass (again), and the person at the booth will check her list to confirm if indeed you have a seat assigned to you. So, if you are thinking of attending an in-person session, the first step is to book your seat through the Wharton Seat Management App that I alluded to before. The building having limited carrying capacity will deny you a seat if the maximum capacity is reached and you were unable to secure your seat in the daily seat allocation lottery. If you were allotted a seat and just decided to not show up, without releasing your seat, this will affect the lottery algorithm and will work against you the next time you request a seat in a high demand scenario.

So, what’s this PennOpen Pass that I mentioned so many times? It is basically the report of your daily symptoms check and weekly test. You need to be devoid of any symptoms of the disease and tested COVID-19 negative (in the weekly Saliva test) for this Pass to remain ‘green’. If the pass is ‘red’ due to non-compliance to mandates or any alarming symptom, you will not be allowed inside the building. 

Phew. That seems a lot, but you get into the habit and it becomes a second nature within a few days.

The infrastructure:

The classrooms look so different: huge screens to project virtual students to in-person students and Professors, additional microphones to make classroom discussions of in-person students audible to virtual students, and bold signs on seats to distinguish the seats that are up for grabs, maintaining physical distance indoors. Classrooms that have about 70-person capacity can now house only 24. Antibacterial wipes dispenser at every door is really convenient, a reminder to clean up when we transition between spaces. A necessary inconvenience is the ban on eating and drinking inside the classroom; even the drinking water fountains are shut down. Guards frequently patrol the corridors to strew inessential gatherings (if any).

What’s going well:

Just the privilege of being able to walk through the Huntsman Hall doors again is exhilarating. In-person students get a lot of time to engage in random, but intense, discourses, while the Professors juggle the break-out rooms for the online counterparts. In some classes, the Professors participate in student-led small group discussions; these are such great opportunities for gaining deeper insights into topics that we learn. Finally, no virtual setting can replace face-to-face interactions when a student has a plethora of questions that can quickly be addressed by rough sketches on physical whiteboards, without the crippling crutches of the Zoom fatigue.

While the current setting is different from what we envisioned it to be when we started the program, I am a firm believer in silver linings. I think that this model is giving us more opportunity for one-on-one interactions with Professors and other students. I personally feel that I get more time and attention to get my doubts / queries addressed and have more meaningful conversations. 

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”I think that we are a little more antifragile now than we used to be. We take things a little less for granted now than we used to. We have learned to expect the unexpected. We have survived through extremely difficult times. The sparsely populated hallways of the Huntsman, to me, symbolize hope, hope of resiliency, hope of persistence, and hope of a better tomorrow.

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