Student Response to Penn School of Nursing’s Administrative Failures During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This letter was written by current students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Signatures are actively being collected with the list of signers frequently updated. 

We would like to take this opportunity to amplify the work of Penn for Pilots, #PoliceFreePenn, and other members of the Penn and greater Philadelphia community working to hold the institution and its leaders accountable for its role in perpetuating racist campus policing and the economic disenfranchisement of the city as a whole. Penn must be held accountable for the marginalization from which it profits. Black lives matter.

August 27th, 2020

This open letter serves to address our dissatisfaction as students at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Nursing (SON) in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We aim to: 

1. Document our repeated efforts to demand adequate support and transparency from the SON administration around education quality, cost, and our ability to graduate on time with sufficient preparation to sit for licensing examinations;

2. Document the SON administration’s repeated failure to meet, or even engage with, student demands thus far; and 

3. Outline our current demands of the SON administration. 

INTRODUCTION

The University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Penn SON) prides itself on being the “best nursing school in the world.” Since the shut down of the Penn campus on March 17th, nursing students have largely been unable to access the resources and instruction that Penn SON is usually able to offer. The vast majority of students have not received in-person simulation lab and clinical training since March 5th, 2020. 

As future and current nurses we understand the importance of social distancing in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and recognize the significant limitations that the SON has had to work within to ensure the safety and well-being of the faculty, staff, and students. However, our tuition and fees have not been reduced to reflect the drastic impact the pandemic has had on the quality of our education. We have paid for an education that is demonstrably lacking.

READ MORE ABOUT HOW OUR TRAINING HAS SUFFERED

Nursing students across Penn SON programs have been communicating concerns regarding the quality and cost of our education since April 13th, 2020. These requests have primarily been directed to Dr. Antonia Villaruel, the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing, and Dr. Julie Sochalski, the Associate Dean for Academic Programs. 

The SON administration has maintained an attitude of indifference. We’ve been met with platitudes that we are receiving the same quality of education and have had our repeated assertions to the contrary ignored and dismissed. 

Further, the school has failed to follow through on demands they’ve agreed to with respect to increased transparency and emergency financial support for students. Meetings we’ve requested have been delayed for months. Administrators have ignored most of the emails we have sent, both as a cohort and individually.

READ MORE ABOUT THE ADMINISTRATION’S FAILURE TO ADDRESS STUDENT DEMANDS

Our efforts to bring our concerns to the larger Penn administration have also been dismissed. On August 10th, 48 nursing students signed their name to emails sent to Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett outlining our concerns.

On August 11th, we were informed of a University-wide “rollback” to 2019-2020 tuition and a 10% reduction of the school’s $2,677 per semester general fee for all Penn undergraduate students “to address the financial challenges incurred by many students in our community as a result of the pandemic.” Penn claims it is supporting students by offering a fee refund of less than $300 and cancelling a tuition increase that never should have been implemented in the first place. This action also fails to address concerns across programs about the quality of education the school is able to provide. 

On August 12th, Provost Pritchett responded to our concerns with a four line email that briefly cited the aforementioned tuition and fees reduction while failing to engage with our stated demands. He also encouraged us to be in touch with the SON administration and “work through these issues together.” 

We are unable to work with an administration that repeatedly refuses to acknowledge us or work with us to address our demands.

READ MORE ABOUT THE ADMINISTRATION’S LACK OF TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATION

We are calling on current and former Penn nursing students to stand with us in demanding change from Penn SON and the university as a whole. We also hope that this letter provides valuable information for prospective nursing students considering Penn.

In order for Penn School of Nursing to meet its commitment to its students, we demand: 

1. An itemized bill for Summer and Fall 2020, specifically delineating the costs of clinical experiences and the general fee.

2. A retroactive refund for all clinical-related costs for Summer 2020 and a retroactive 10% reduction of the Summer 2020 general fee commensurate with the reduction we received for Fall 2020. 

3. The formation of a nursing student working group that will meet biweekly with Penn School of Nursing administrators to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on our education and ways in which the school can provide more adequate financial and academic support to students.

List of signers (updated as of 11:00am EST on 9/28/2020)

Signed, 

  • Aaron Zhan, ABSN 2021
  • Adriana Brau-Diaz, RN, ABSN 2019
  • Aishah Hargett, ABSN 2019
  • Alex Kulick, Penn Museum
  • Alexa Grooms, ABSN 2020
  • Alexandra Regas-Riewerts, ABSN 2021
  • Alexandra Uscatu, ABSN 2021
  • Alexis Cascino, RN, ABSN ‘17, WHNP ‘22
  • Alexis Pitcairn-Ramirez, GNu’16, MSN, WHNP
  • Allison Hillner, ABSN ’19, RN
  • Alyssa Savarino, ABSN 2020
  • Amy Goldfischer, Research Staff, Dept. of Biology 
  • Amy Wong, ABSN 2021
  • Anonymous ABSN, 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2021
  • Anonymous, ABSN 2020, MSN-PNP 2022
  • Anonymous, BSN 2022
  • Anonymous GNu’20, MSN, AGPCNP
  • Anonymous, MSN 2021
  • Ashtin Jacoby, ABSN 2021
  • Ashton Lupton, RN, Seattle University SNM, DNP ‘21
  • Aupala Huq, RN
  • Bonnie Zheng, ABSN 2020
  • Brandi Hodek, ABSN 2020
  • Caitlin MacRae, RN BSN, ABSN ‘19
  • Camille Frey, ABSN 2019, GNu ‘22, BSN, RN
  • Caroline Conver, ABSN 2019, RN
  • Catherine Aronowitz, ABSN 2020
  • Christina Saudan, ABSN 2020
  • Claire Aurand, ABSN 2021
  • Collette Williams, ABSN 2020
  • Dinah Kim, ABSN 2020
  • Elizabeth Ach, ABSN 2021
  • Elizabeth Bynum, PhD Candidate, 2022
  • Elizabeth Finkel, ABSN 2020, WHNP/Midwifery 2022
  • Elizabeth Humphrey RN, Nu’19, MSN-CNM/WHNP 2024
  • Ellen Beckett, ABSN 2021
  • Emily J. Feldman, ABSN 2020
  • Emma MacAllister, BSN ‘15, GNu ‘21
  • Emma McClafferty, ABSN 2021
  • Erin Finucane, ABSN, 2020
  • Eva Hoenigess, ABSN/WHNP
  • Evan Messina, ABSN 2020
  • George Ajoku, ABSN 2021
  • Ginny Huntoon, ABSN 2020
  • Graciela Bolanos, ABSN 2021
  • Haeun Kim, MSN, 2020
  • Hana Housammy, ABSN 2020
  • Hannah Fry, ABSN 2021
  • Henry Hinds, ABSN 2020
  • Jake Nussbaum, PhD
  • Jan Ambrose, W’88 MA W’94 PhD
  • Jeannie Lozowski, ABSN 2020
  • Jessie Axsom, ABSN ‘19, Hillman Scholars Program
  • Jill Wurzburg, ABSN 2020
  • Joselle Palacios, Nu‘12, BSN, RN
  • Joseph Cribb, ABSN 2019/MSN 2022, BSN, RN
  • Julia Scribano, ABSN 2021
  • Julie Guerin, ABSN 2019 / MSN 2024, BSN, RN
  • Justin Kelly, BSN 2021
  • Kallie Brown, ABSN 2020
  • Kate Hennessy, ABSN 2021
  • Katherine Disston, ABSN 2018
  • Katherine Lo, ABSN 2021
  • Katherine Sadovnikov, ABSN 2020
  • Katherine Sibley ABSN 2019, PMHNP 2022, RN
  • Katherine Smith, ABSN 2021
  • Kathryn Parks Bailey, ABSN 2020
  • Katie McDonnell, GNu’20, MSN
  • Katrina Lipinsky, RN, ABSN ‘18, midwifery/WHNP ‘20
  • Kha-Ling Cheam, ABSN 2021
  • Kierra Foley, ABSN 2019, Hillman Scholars Program
  • Kristin Kelly, ABSN 2021
  • Kristin Mainzer, RN, ABSN 2019
  • Kylie Trone, ABSN 2021
  • Lauren Fisher, ABSN 2021
  • Lauren Gardner ABSN 2021
  • Liliana Schmitt, ABSN 2020
  • Lillian Jahan, ABSN 2021
  • Lily Shaffer, ABSN ’19, GNu’21, BSN, RN
  • Maia Sebek, ABSN, 2018
  • Margaret Haviland, Nu’12, GNu’17, BSN, MSN, CNM/WHNP
  • Margaux Rogers, ABSN 2020
  • Mayelin Perez, PhD 2021
  • Megan Smitala, ABSN 2020
  • Meghan Cohl, ABSN 2019, MSN 2022, BSN, RN
  • Melanie Joseph, ABSN 2020
  • Melanie Regan, ABSN 2020
  • Melanie Tayer, ABSN 2020
  • Melissa Bucher ABSN ‘19, RN
  • Meredith Page Miller, ABSN 2020
  • Michael Voitek, ABSN 2020
  • Michelle Tran, ABSN 2021
  • Miranda Canilang, ABSN 2019, BSN, RN
  • Mona Akhiary, ABSN 2020
  • Monica Evans, RN, ABSN ‘17, CNM/WHNP ‘20
  • Natalia Boos, ABSN 2020
  • Navah Stein, ABSN 2021
  • Olivia Lyons-Potter, ABSN 2020
  • Paige Martin, ABSN 2019, FNP 2023
  • Paulina Fernández, ABSN 2020
  • Qian Ni, ABSN 2020
  • Rachael Battaglioli GNu ’20, MSN, WHNP
  • Rachel Loth, RN, MSN 2021
  • Rachel Shields, ABSN ‘20, RN
  • Rayleigh Palmer, ABSN-MSN 2024
  • Rebecca Hosey, ABSN 2021
  • Regenie Tee, ABSN 2020
  • Richard E. Levine, MD. C’81, MED ’85, GRM ’89
  • Riley Ambrose, RN ABSN ’18, GNu’21 MSN FNP
  • Riley Hasche, ABSN 2020
  • Sabrina Noboa, ABSN 2021
  • Sam Samore, PhD Student in English
  • Samantha Stroup, ABSN 2020
  • Sara D’Arpino, ABSN ’18, GNu’20, MSN, AGPCNP
  • Sarah Ball, ABSN 2020
  • Sarah Olstein, ABSN 2019, BSN, RN
  • Serena Luong, ABSN 2020
  • Siena Dryden, ABSN 2020
  • Sofia Saavedra
  • Soyisha Sylvain, ABSN 2020
  • Taite Brunetta, ABSN 2021
  • Tenaya Anue, GBA ’12
  • Whitney Flynn, ABSN 2020
  • Yinxuan Hu, ABSN 2021
  • Yvonne Reddick, ABSN 2021
  • Ziz Sinclaire, ABSN ’18, BSN-RN

Supporters Who Have Signed in Solidarity

  • Aaron Dockser
  • Alanna Shelley
  • Alex LaBant
  • Anonymous
  • Anna Solgunova
  • Barbara Dexter
  • Dr. Barbara Nash, parent of student
  • Charlotte Phelps
  • Dave Walk
  • Elise DeDominicis, DDS
  • Embry Wood Owen
  • Erin Pellecchia
  • Felicia Gordon
  • Francesca Delle Cese
  • Gabriel LeMarc
  • Hannah Holliday
  • Hannah Tremblay
  • Hannah Yost
  • Hill Saxton
  • James Austin, RN
  • James W Rogers
  • Jasmine Govenlock
  • Jasmine Verret, APRN, MSN, WHNP-BC
  • Jennifer Pura
  • Jennifer Smith, BSN
  • Jocelyn Scribano, parent of ABSN student
  • Josh Anue
  • Kara Moloney, RN
  • Katherine Law, BSN
  • Kelly Harmon, MD Candidate 2023
  • Kelly Joyce, MSN, CPNP-PC
  • Matthew Landis
  • Melanie Mauller
  • Molly Breeskin
  • Morgan Everman
  • Nadia Crystal, CNM, MSN
  • Nina Buccheri Jeffords, RN MSHA
  • Richard Byrd
  • Sabrina Zionts, MSN, CNM
  • Sam Learner
  • Samantha Reichard
  • Samantha Stein
  • Sasha Levites
  • Shelby Stephens – Seattle University APNI/DNP Midwifery 2023
  • Sophie Jenkins
  • Stephanie Tillman, CNM (Feminist Midwife). YSN grad 2012
  • Susanna Jenkins
  • Trisha Ballard

HOW OUR TRAINING HAS SUFFERED

We are paying for an education we are not getting

We have repeatedly voiced our concerns to the School of Nursing (SON) administration. We were told that we would see NO reduction in clinical hours and would see no change to the caliber of our education. On April 17th, in an email to students, SON Dean Villarruel said the education we were receiving was “no different in character, in quality, and in outcome.”  This has unequivocally not been the case. 

In the spring, many students completed clinical hours utilizing iHuman, an online program in which nursing skills, including physical assessments, are all conducted virtually on cartoon patients. On April 13th, students e-mailed Dean Villarruel outlining the inadequacy of training with these “patients.” On April 17th, the Dean responded that this program and other virtual tools “…have been thoroughly vetted and have an evidence-base affirming the outcomes and values we assert for our program.” Moving a cursor over a pixelated chest does not teach us physical assessment skills, nor does choosing sentences from a dropdown menu simulate conversing with patients.

Over the summer, 30 hours of clinical “experience” were delivered in the form of a variety of videos and podcasts that are available to the public at no cost. Listening to the free third season of the podcast Serial was authorized to fulfill 10 clinical hours. 

We paid full tuition to spend zero hours interacting with real patients. Course faculty apologized repeatedly for the subpar educational experience we had. 

A new cohort of Penn nursing students started in June. Their simulation laboratory classes involve learning to assess patients and practice medication administration. After the Spring 2020 semester, current Penn SON students gave clear, direct feedback on ways to improve certain courses, especially simulation laboratory, for the upcoming Summer 2020 semester. Based on concerns voiced by the new cohort, it is clear that much of the feedback from the Spring 2020 semester was not adopted. This summer, the Simulation Education Specialist dismissed student concerns about the poor structure of online discussion boards, videos, and written instructions. In early August, students had only four days of in-person training. These students will start clinical with little in-person training and are expected (and allowed) to administer medications to actual patients, when they have never practiced in person.

These past two semesters, we have been sorely lacking in real-time communication with instructors, interactive simulation training, and most importantly, clinical experiences with real patients. Simulation labs were delivered via pre-recorded videos, with student interaction and “teaching” taking place via online discussion posts. Time lost from our in-person clinical sites would have been valuable experience working with clinical instructors, networking with other nurses, and better preparing ourselves to be the types of “nursing leaders” Penn touts we will be upon graduation and entrance into the workforce.

Students with disabilities have also struggled to access adequate services and accommodations following the switch to remote online learning. When expressing concerns about difficulties with audio quality and a hearing impairment, one student was told by her professor, “Luckily this is the only live session.” Responses from administration for students with difficulties have been similarly apathetic. Despite the SON administration’s claims that “no student will be left behind,” many have found available support to be wholly insufficient.

THE ADMINISTRATION’S FAILURE TO ADDRESS STUDENT DEMANDS

Indifference and inaction regarding requests for financial assistance and funding 

Inaction by our deans regarding tuition and financial assistance

Despite repeated assertions from students that their education has suffered, the administration maintains the stance that reduction of tuition and fees is “off the table.” In a meeting on May 7th, when asked to consider the specific ways in which nursing students have struggled and to bring those concerns to the Penn President and Provost, Dean Villaruel refused to do so. The administration maintained this stance until the 10% general fee reduction and tuition “rollback” was announced on August 11th. 

At that same meeting in May, the administration agreed to send resources related to work-study position referrals and additional emergency funding sources, as many students have lost income sources since March. Despite multiple requests for follow up from students, the SON never followed up on its promise of job referrals. The university finally posted work-study positions on August 10th, over 4 months later. The administration has redirected any follow up around the emergency funding sources they agreed to provide to this school-wide Emergency and Opportunity Funding page. This form clearly states that the funding available (up to $1000) is “…not suited to address significant financial deficits; pay for ongoing living expenses such as rent or utilities during summers or when the University is operating with remote instruction; cover University tuition and fees”. In other words, this funding is inadequate and not meant to address the needs we have repeatedly outlined. 

Many of us rely on Medicaid and EBT (food stamps). EBT qualification depends on proof of work-study, so cutting off work-study opportunities has serious implications for students.

Students have since been referred to the Office of Financial Aid in regards to these continued concerns. The Office of Financial Aid’s stance has simply been to encourage students to take out more loans.  

Furthermore, at a meeting with students on August 3, 2020, Dean Villarruel responded to a question about COVID relief funding with the suggestion that students share the contact information of their “rich aunts or uncles” so the school could request funding from them. The Dean also suggested that students contact our congresspeople for financial relief. 

These callous remarks demonstrate how little responsibility the administration takes in addressing the financial concerns of nursing students. 

Refusal of requests for itemized breakdown of our tuition 

On May 7th, students formally requested an itemized breakdown of tuition and fees to justify the administration’s unwillingness to discuss or advocate for a reduction to these expenses. While administrators agreed to that request during the meeting, they evaded fulfilling it for months thereafter. 

On July 13th, a letter drafted by midwifery students and signed by 63 nursing students was sent to the SON administration demanding that the general fee be waived until the school was able to provide a clear breakdown of how those fees related to distance learning. There has been no response to this letter.

On July 29th, 2020, nearly three months following the official request, Dean Christina M. Costanzo, Assistant Dean for Admissions & Academic Affairs, sent the following to all SON students addressing only the $2,677 per semester general fee:

The General Fee is assessed to all undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, and directly funds Penn’s non-instructional student support services. The General Fee for full-time students provides them with full access to a wide variety of services and resources, including counseling and wellness, multicultural resource centers, student activities, recreation and fitness, career services, learning support, and much more…These student services will remain consistent for all Penn students, whether administered in-person or remotely, as the services and resources they fund remain in place.” 

We unequivocally refute the fact that these non-instructional student support services are consistent in a “hybrid or fully remote” environment. The 10% fee reduction is an inadequate response to the current educational experience that Penn is able to provide. 

THE ADMINISTRATION’S LACK OF TRANSPARENCY AND COMMUNICATION

Lack of Transparency, Communication, and Follow Through

The Penn School of Nursing administration has repeatedly failed to provide honest communication, transparency, or timely information.

On May 7th, Deans Sochalski and Villarruel agreed to student requests for weekly email updates with relevant information regarding contingency planning and other COVID 19 related information. 

When the administration failed to send these updates, students sent an email inquiry on May 28th requesting the agreed-upon correspondence. The deans did not respond. Another inquiry was sent on June 18th requesting these updates. Dean Sochalski responded on June 19th and explained that student “office hours,” an “open forum” where the administration would share “updates and announcements,” would begin the week of June 22nd. The Dean also promised that, in the interim, a variety of other questions and concerns would be addressed in an email. That email was never sent. 

Dean Sochalski’s office hours did not begin until July 15th, and weekly update emails began on July 22nd, over two and a half months after the initial request and Dean Villaruel’s agreement for weekly communication were made.

Official student representatives for the ABSN cohort also requested a meeting with our cohort faculty advisors and Dean Sochalski on May 14th. They have yet to receive a response.

Our individual inquiries have also been largely ignored or dismissed with platitudes. On May 13th, 2020, a nursing student emailed a SON administrator requesting information regarding concerns about the potential decrease in clinical hours. The student received a response that quoted Dean Sochalski in saying, “our COVID-19 curricular response comprised had no change in courses, course objectives, or total clinical hours.” On May 14th, after receiving documentation from professors that clinical hours for the summer would be reduced, the student emailed Dean Sochalski for clarification. She did not receive a response to that email. The student sent follow-up emails on May 28th and June 19th and has yet to receive a response. 

Would you like to support and stand with us?

Join the list of signers by following the links below.

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