Students, Universities Shift Approaches As School Year Begins

West Chester University Hillel President Sophie Koval is staying home this semester. | Courtesy of Sophie Koval

West Chester University Hillel President Sophie Koval won’t be moving into a dorm this fall.

Instead, she’ll be living at home and taking classes online. The university announced in July that the fall semester will be entirely remote for undergraduates.

Koval said she’s sad that she can’t be with friends and have a typical college experience, but believes it is important for everyone to do their part and keep each other safe.

“Hopefully, we’ll be back on campus in the spring. So I’m OK with it, and I’ve gotten used to it from this entire summer being kind of off,” she said.

West Chester isn’t the only school that has decided not to welcome students back to campus. In addition to holding classes online and canceling in-person activities, the University of Pennsylvania announced on Aug. 11 that it would not be able to accommodate undergraduates in university housing.

The school released a statement that said the sheer number of students that would be required to quarantine upon arrival is untenable. Supply chain issues also have limited the availability of COVID-19 testing that was crucial to the school’s original reopening plan.

Some graduate students will be allowed on campus with safety restrictions.

Zoe Baker, a Jewish MFA candidate in studio art at Penn, will take classes online this semester, but like other art students, will be able to access a private art studio for a limited amount of time. Baker thinks the semester will be an interesting challenge: “I feel so lucky to be a grad student right now and not an undergrad.”

The University of Pennsylvania campus, above in 2017, will be quiet this fall, as most students will be learning remotely. | Photo by David Wilson via Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0

Other schools, including Drexel University, Temple University, Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College, are moving forward with a combination of in-person and remote classes. Dorms there are operating with reduced capacity to aid social distancing.

Susan Becker, assistant director of Hillel at Temple University, said the Hillel building will remain closed and all programs will be virtual.

She and her colleagues were surprised when they learned that Temple was bringing students back to campus, especially since some dorms are now reserved for quarantining students with COVID-19 symptoms.

“When you have to make your two biggest dorms isolation dorms, I feel like that should be a signal, like maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” she said.

Karoline Robb, president of Drexel’s Jewish Student Association, said her school is trying to prioritize student and staff safety by limiting the number of people in buildings and requiring all returning students to get a COVID-19 test.

Still, she is nervous about the school’s ability to enforce social distancing.

“I just feel a general anxiety about students being allowed to congregate and our ability as students to make good decisions regarding safety,” she said.

Elizabeth Warrick, president of Bryn Mawr College Hillel, will be living on campus this semester. During the housing lottery, she was assigned to the dorm that was used to film Midge Maisel’s college days in season one of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

She said that there is still a lot of uncertainty.

“Everything still feels up in the air. We don’t know what’s going to happen in a week’s time, whether Philadelphia is going to suddenly get like 100 more cases a day,” she said.

Reopening plans also have shifted how students engage with Jewish life at school.

Greater Philly Hillel Network supports Jewish student life at West Chester, Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and its programming is adapting to the schools’ different rules.

“We have two totally separate engagement strategies — one that focuses exclusively on remote engagement, and the other one that can have a mix of remote and in-person engagement,” Executive Director Tslil Shtulsaft said.

Shtulsaft said students who thought the isolation of the spring semester would be over by fall are worried about feeling lonely as the pandemic drags on.

His staff plans to reach out to every incoming Jewish freshman at West Chester to connect them to online social opportunities.

The network also runs Jewish Graduate Student Network and is creating virtual outreach programs for graduate students. While many undergraduates are riding out the pandemic with their families, graduate students are more likely to live alone.

“Some of them are brand new to the city, and that is even more isolating than being at home with your family,” Shtulsaft said.

Becker, Koval, Robb, Shtulsaft and Warrick are all planning remote outreach programs, including virtual events and kits for Shabbat and the High Holidays.

Hillel at Temple will transition Jewish Learning Fellowships, which are small cohort-based classes on topics like cooking, photography and Israel, online this semester. Becker said that focusing on helping students build relationships to combat feelings of isolation is more important than ever.

At Drexel, Robb plans to host small outdoor gatherings for Shabbat where students wear masks and keep 6 feet apart. She is also creating a remote music program because she misses group singing and praying.

“We’re hoping to get a couple of students’ voices on these tracks and just have a few songs on SoundCloud. So even though we can’t be in the room together singing, you can still listen to this music and feel connected to the community,” she said.

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