By SUSAN JONES
More than 800 people tuned in for the first of three town halls on Pitt’s Resilience Framework planning for the fall. The July 23 online event was designed to answer faculty questions and Provost Ann Cudd wasted no time in getting to one of the biggest concerns.
Town halls for students and staff will be held in the next two weeks. For those who are unable to attend, recordings will be made available following the events.
Student town hall: 3-4 p.m. July 28. Webinar registration is available via Zoom to the first 500 people. The town hall will be live-streamed on YouTube for those who are not able to participate via Zoom.
Staff town hall: 9:30-10:30 a.m. Aug. 5. Registration information coming soon.
“I want to be clear about this: We are not requiring anyone to be physically present in the classroom,” Cudd said. “However, Flex@Pitt provides the possibility for students or faculty to be in the classroom when pandemic conditions allow.”
Many have asked, Cudd said, why the University is employing the Flex@Pitt model, rather than going completely online for the entire academic year. The idea with Flex@Pitt, she said, is that courses have the flexibility to change modes of instruction when the University changes between postures and maximizes classroom experiences when in lowest-risk posture.
“Flex@Pitt gives faculty the flexibility to choose in-person, remote or combinations of engagement with the classroom experience, and the flexibility to change their choice at any time,” Cudd said. “If we were to give up now and go all online without planning for the in-class modality, we would not be able to change our operations to go back to the classroom when conditions allow.”
Surveys after Pitt went to all-remote learning in the spring found that students want to be on campus and value the opportunity to learn together in classrooms, she said.
Cynthia Golden, director of the University Center for Teaching and Learning, outlined all the resources available to faculty members to help prepare for hybrid classes. The center also has developed a Flex@Pitt playbook, available on its website, that give tips for synchronous and asynchronous learning and much more.
There have been several workshops to help faculty (recorded versions are available), and Golden said they are planning a panel discussion next week on successful strategies faculty have employed. No time for the panel was announced.
Technology in classrooms
Mark Henderson, Pitt’s chief information officer, said installation began July 20 of classrooms technology to assist with remote teaching and learning. Pitt IT is working with the company Radiant on these installations.
The short window for the installations and the number of classrooms that are being updated — more than 200 — have presented challenges because of supply chain issues, he said. But they hope to have information on when faculty can try out the equipment next week.
The technology being installed in the registrar-managed classrooms can be remotely monitored and controlled for starting classes or troubleshooting. Some technology also will be able to turn itself on. Technicians will be dispatched as needed to address problems in person. “We’re working on options to provide a similar level of service for non-registrar classes, which may have other non-integrated technology,” Henderson said.
Pitt IT also is working with classes with specialized needs, such as studio instruction, to come up with online solutions. He said they will be adapting as they go and welcome any feedback.
Testing and contact tracing
John Williams, director of the new COVID-19 Medical Response Team, also addressed the group, and delved into why Pitt will only be testing a random sample of returning students instead of everyone.
What they are trying to determine is the prevalence of the virus in the returning students. The Pennsylvania Department of Health already tracks what the prevalence is in Allegheny County, but because students come from all over, the rate of infection among that group is unknown. By using proven sampling strategies, they can determine the prevalence and slow down the flow of returning students as needed.
He also said testing everyone would be difficult because the availability of the test is limited and not getting better.
Williams stressed that the key to virus control is “masks, hand hygiene, distance; it’s not testing. In fact, if we all did masks, hand hygiene and distance appropriately, we wouldn’t need testing. So testing is not a magic bullet. It’s an important tool, but it’s really about the behaviors.”
An abundance of questions
Panel moderator Chris Bonneau, University Senate president, then started reading questions that had been submitted in advance or had been asked through the Zoom meeting.
One of the more interesting questions came right at the end of the meeting. Bonneau wondered what the expectations were for faculty productivity during the pandemic, particularly for those who aren’t tenured or who are on fixed-term contracts?
Cudd gave a lengthy answer in which she complimented the faculty for how hard they have been working and how flexible they have been.
“I think that the hard fact of life right now is that everything’s harder for everyone in terms of getting your work done. … And I think we all understand that,” she said. “Naturally, expectations for productivity are going to be lower for this period of time, and in fact we already have taken this into account … any faculty member who requests can have a year added to their tenure clock, for example. And I know that many deans have discussed how to try to take account of this for appointment-screen faculty as well, but it’s a little bit harder because there’s no specific timeline for their promotion to the next level.
“We have no desire to penalize anybody. I think the faculty have been incredibly heroic, resilient, flexible and done great things. I want to thank the faculty for that. … And because of all of our efforts, we’ve been able to not have any layoffs, not to dock anybody’s pay, not to do anything like that, but keep our faculty and our staff and our students together as a community. I think that at this point, we need faculty to also trust us that we are not aiming to penalize or to be harsh, but rather, we’re embracing their enthusiasm and their adaptability and their flexibility.”
Here’s a roundup of some of the other questions. Find the full recording on the provost’s website.
Do faculty need to submit any medical information if they choose to work remotely?
No, it’s totally the faculty’s option if they want to teach in person or remotely, Cudd reiterated.
Will faculty, staff and students be required to wear masks and what if they cannot or will not wear one?
Geovette Washington, Pitt’s chief legal officer and head of the Resilience Steering Committee, said: “The guidance on wearing face masks is that you should wear face masks whenever you are within 6 feet of anyone and when you are in shared spaces. It is a requirement that you wear those face mask, and if you can’t, we ask that you not come into the buildings.”
She said the new Student Code of Conduct will address discipline for students who don’t comply, and the resilience committee is developing strategies for dealing with staff and faculty who are noncompliant.
Yesterday, many people were notified that they do not have space for their classes. How should faculty go about handling this? Does this mean they can then teach their class completely online if there’s not adequate classroom space?
Cudd said there are still 20 percent of classes that have not been placed, but the registrar is working diligently to complete those, “so continue to look at the classroom assignment for your class.”
About 9 percent of undergraduate classes with be fully remote, she said, because the size of the class doesn’t meet the capacity of the room.
Of graduate classes, 90 percent have been placed, and of those 60 percent are fully remote by request and 30 percent are fully in person.
In response to a question about when classroom assignments will be completed so faculty can decide how to proceed, Cudd said the process is very complicated. HVAC systems need to be inspected and spaces marked off to determine classroom capacity.
“Then as we assign classrooms, in some cases, deans or faculty are coming to us and saying, actually we need something slightly different,” she said. “We are finding that we need to rerun this algorithm, over and over and over again to get closer and closer to the optimal use. The fact is, we have only 16 percent of the normal capacity of classrooms.”
They also are looking at nontraditional class spaces, including a tent for classes that involve expelling a lot of air.
She said they hope to be nearly finished by next week with classroom assignments. And Henderson said as soon as classrooms are available, they’ll be opening them up for “demo days.”
What is the protocol for when a student in a class tests positive? Will faculty be notified? Will the whole class need to quarantine?
Williams said as part of the contact tracing they would be reaching out to professors to see how the student behaved in class — did they sit in the back and wear a mask the whole time, for instance?
He said lots of people are working on what “carrots and sticks” to use to encourage correct student behavior. “But in terms of us protecting ourselves as faculty, that’s much more on us to observe the mask, distance and hand hygiene to avoid us needing to quarantine.”
Washington said during contact tracing they will try to keep the confidentiality of the names of students who test positive as well as they can.
Were the faculty surveyed and why are decisions being made solely on the basis of what students want, as opposed to faculty considerations or other kinds of things?
Cudd: “Faculty were also surveyed (see story about the survey here) and faculty were also part of the Task Force on Reimagining Education. I think faculty have had input, and we have listened to faculty. We are trying to balance the needs and the desires of many different constituents here. And we believe that we have found in Flex@Pitt a way of achieving the really most serious concerns and desires of the faculty — that is the ability to not to be in the classroom if they feel it’s unsafe for them — and yet we can also still meet the students interests and concerns.”
When can people get access to their offices again?
Washington said people can get into their offices now on an ad hoc basis by contacting Facilities Management and working with their dean.
“We are in the process of each school completing their Activity Area Plan, which will allow us to then authorize all the faculty who are going to be back in their classrooms and back in their offices throughout the course of this term,” she said.
There’s much confusion among faculty when we hear the term in classroom experience. If a faculty member holds live, synchronous classes with students from their home, does that count as an in-classroom experience, or does this term only mean a live faculty in the classroom experience?
Cudd: “The faculty member does not need to be in the classroom to provide for the students a live, in-classroom experience. It’s the students who need to be provided with that; faculty need not be in the classroom.”
Given the well-recognized weakness of the current OMETs, and some of the biases that are implicit or explicit in them, has a new tool been developed to evaluate faculty teaching performance under this new model?
Golden said a few questions were added to the survey in the spring and the results were only shared with the instructors, not with their chairs or deans. For the coming year, they are still discussing how to handle these evaluations and will be working with Faculty Senate on that process.
How should we think about spring? Particularly for those of us who have school-age kids, should we be prepared to have a situation like this in the spring?
Cudd: “I think we can’t plan on how the virus evolves and what happens with the pandemic. But what we can plan for is the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, that we will still be in the pandemic, that we won’t have vaccine or universal the use of vaccines, or herd immunity by the spring. And given that reality, it seems to me that it’s only rational for us to plan for Flex@Pitt also continuing through the spring.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.
Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.