Faculty question if Flex@Pitt should still be an option


Members of the Faculty Affairs Committee, meeting Sept. 7, felt the announced end of Flex@Pitt had been premature, given the current COVID-19 upsurge — but observed that the Flex@Pitt equipment was, in certain cases, still available.

Tom Loughlin, Swanson School of Engineering faculty member, noted that fellow faculty had even gotten updates on how to use some of the remaining Flex@Pitt equipment — which was still needed, he said: “It’s almost certain that we’re going to have to be teaching remotely … at periodic times in this semester.”

On Sept. 8, Provost Ann Cudd sent an email to faculty confirming that all classes will meet in person beginning Sept. 13, unless permission for remote or hybrid delivery has been approved by the requesting faculty member's dean. But she acknowledged that “individual faculty members and students may need to isolate at some points in the weeks ahead should University health guidelines require that.”

The University Center for Teaching and Learning has developed a series of ideas to help faculty support students who may be in quarantine or isolation — or if faculty themselves need to isolate.

Cudd recommended that faculty add a statement to their syllabi inviting students to contact them to discuss arrangements if they are required to quarantine or isolate. The Teaching Center’s website has some suggested language.

At Faculty Assembly last week, an issue was raised about faculty with underlying health conditions who wish to continue teaching remotely.

Paul Munro, associate professor in the School of Computing and Information, said a lung condition has him concerned about returning to the classroom. While there is a process to get an accommodation through Disability Resources and Services (DRS), “I think that since the Zoom technology is available, any faculty member who does not feel safe should be able to hold classes online, especially with the large degree of uncertainty with respect to breakthrough (infections).”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in an interview with the University Times last week acknowledged that there will be people who are more at risk than others and those people should pursue a reasonable accommodation through DRS.

Lucy Russell, vice provost and chief of staff, said as of early this week fewer than .5 percent of faculty members in Pittsburgh and the regional campuses had requested remote teaching as an accommodation and one-third of those requests have been approved. 

“The question really is what is a reasonable accommodation,” Gallagher said. “Last year we … granted enormous flexibility to individual faculty and students on how they would participate in classes but I will also say we paid a dear price in the quality of instruction. … We know from survey results talking to our students, it was not optimal. The discussion about what’s reasonable is one that has to happen between our Disability Resources Office and the academic leadership of that program.”

At the Faculty Affairs committee meeting, Lu-in Wang, vice provost for faculty affairs and School of Law faculty member, said her classroom also still has the technology installed for remote teaching and learning.

Suzanna Gribble, biology faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, said professors in her department were able to request to keep Flex@Pitt equipment in classrooms where students would need remote accommodations this fall, following notification from the Office of Disability Resources. She also said professors had received remote teaching equipment through classroom services at the Teaching Center — because they asked. “You really need to do the legwork to get it done,” she said of the equipment requests.

Committee co-chair Lorraine Denman, French and Italian faculty member, said that at least one faculty member in her department had been able to request the technology to aid remote classroom instruction.  

Incoming freshmen are “very eager to get back in the classroom,” reported a representative of the Student Government Board, senior Isabella Stash, who attended the meeting. But they are also anxious about the possibility of getting sick and being quarantined. They were reassured last year that professors would give accommodations in such situations, but were uncertain this year how it will work

Denman felt there was still confusion among faculty about what to do when students request such accommodations, such as being on Zoom, during the semester. Should faculty be recording classes routinely?

“It’s very difficult for me,” she said, equipped only with her own laptop, to capture not only her lecture but small-group discussion and other in-person classroom elements. “I’m happy to accommodate, it’s just that we haven’t been given instructions on how to do that.”

Seth Weinberg, dental medicine faculty member, wondered how the University will handle a faculty member who needs to be absent should their children be sent home from a K-12 classroom, since such schools are too-often affected by COVID-19. “We’re going to have faculty out for two weeks at a time,” he said.

“That’s a real concern — we don’t really have protocols in place for those types of substitutions,” Denman said.

The main concern for faculty, Denman said, is that student COVID-19 case and quarantine rates hadn't been published yet by Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office. The CMRO released its first case numbers on Sept. 9. On the Pittsburgh campus, 56 students and 22 employees have tested positive since the beginning of the school year. At the regional campuses there have been 10 student cases — eight at Greensburg and two at Johnstown — and two employees — one each at Johnstown and Bradford.

“I’ve been dying to go back into the classroom. I feel safe,” Denman said, given student vaccination rates. But because the Delta variant has been driving COVID cases up, and due to breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, “if we see quarantine numbers that start to resemble those of last year, I think that’s a concern.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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