Guarded risk opens some doors, but changes are limited

members of Heinz Chapel Choir rehearse in tent


The Oakland campus moved the Guarded Risk operating posture on Oct. 19, allowing more in-person classes and student activities and opening up indoor dining spaces. But with just four weeks left until the end of in-person classes on Nov. 20 and students being asked to shelter in place for the two weeks before they leave campus, don’t expect wholesale changes.


On Oct. 14, Provost Ann Cudd hosted a panel discussion featuring faculty who have been teaching students who are remote and in-person. The panelists offered a variety of ideas for faculty. Find the recording here.

The University Center for Teaching and Learning also is hosting Flex@Pitt technology training every Friday through Nov. 13. Find the list of workshops here.

“We made the Flex@Pitt plan … to have that flexibility,” said John Williams, head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office. “And if you make criteria to go to a lower risk — not zero risk; still use masks, people — but a lower risk status, why would you not do that?”

The number of COVID-19 cases on the Oakland campus has remained low — 45 students and four employees since the beginning of October. As of Oct. 23, the five-day moving average was 2.6 and 18 students and three employees were in isolation. Overall, there have been 297 student cases since Aug. 1 and 17 employees.

“The students have worked really hard,” Williams said. “This semester has not been what any of them expected or planned for, or any of us, but I think it’s been toughest on the students, and they have done it magnificently. And so they deserve for us to stick with our plan, which is if things are going well, we’ll go to a lower risk.”

But what does moving to Guarded Risk really mean?

“In the Guarded Risk posture, instructors do not need approval to teach in person,” Provost Ann Cudd said. “In Guarded, the expectation is that most courses with an assigned classroom will provide an in-person experience at least once per week. In-class experiences can include, but are not limited to, providing an opportunity for students to see one another and study together in the same classroom or allowing students to see the classroom and their instructors in person.”

In some cases, this might mean students coming to the classroom during the assigned time and still interacting with their professors on their laptops. But most larger classes were never assigned a classroom, so there is no place for students and faculty to meet in person.

The University installed special equipment from Radiant Technologies in 160 registrar-controlled learning spaces that allow faculty who are in the classroom to interact with those who are in-person and remote. Seventeen other classrooms controlled by the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Dental Medicine, the School of Computing and Information and the Katz Graduate School of Business are also equipped. But it is still up to the professor and student whether they want to be in the classroom.

Williams said larger gatherings — up to 250 people outside — can happen, but “those gatherings still should only happen if there’s a reason, like a class, a student activity, a band practice, something like that. But not a party — keggers are still not a good idea. And even with larger gatherings — and this is where people blew it back in the summer, and we’re trying to convey the message very clearly here — even with a larger gathering that is only if everybody’s masked and you can maintain distance and it can still be safe.”

Building access has stayed largely the same, said David DeJong, acting senior vice chancellor for Business and Operations, with concierges still in place to check people into buildings. Only members of the Pitt community are allowed in campus buildings, and they must show a Pitt ID and get a temperature check before entering.

The biggest difference is students can now eat at the indoor dining spaces — at 50 percent capacity, as ordered by the state — in Litchfield Towers, Sutherland Hall and the Cathedral of Learning. “It comes at a great time because of the weather change,” he said. “We’re doing that very carefully to avoid overcrowding. In fact, you have to get a reservation.”

But most in-person classes and indoor dining will end when the 14-day shelter-in-place period kicks in, Williams said, which for most students will be around Nov. 7. Williams said the plan is the reverse of what was used in bringing students to campus in August — sheltering seven days at home and then seven days on campus to not spread the disease. “What is the safest way that those students can protect families and friends? And that is shelter-in-place quarantine here for 14 days to make sure they’re not infected before they go home,” he said.

Williams said Pitt will use the staggered arrival used in August as a template to guide the beginning of the spring semester, “but we’re still developing the plans for the return next semester. … We’ll be developing our plans ahead of time, but conditions in the environment and even the city and the community around us will have some impact as well.”

Pitt employees are scheduled to return from winter break on Jan. 4, but classes will not resume until Jan. 19 for students. Flex@Pitt, which allows students and faculty to decide whether to be in the classroom or remote, will continue through the spring semester, Cudd announced earlier this month.

Concern about move to Guarded

The move to Guarded status has gotten some criticism, both from faculty and students. For staff, the preferred operating stance continues to be work from home.

Senate President Chris Bonneau, a political science professor, said he’s worried that the change will lead to a spike in cases. “I tend to think being more cautious is almost always preferable to not, particularly regarding COVID-19. And so for me, given the semester, given the weather turning, given Halloween, Election Day, and given the surge we’re seeing nationwide in cases — even if we’re not seeing them on our campus or necessarily our county — I’m not sure. It’s me — I worry.”

“I do think that when you say we’re reducing our risk posture, … that sends a signal to people that ... we can be a little bit more permissive. And as we’ve seen both in Allegheny County across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and nationwide that whenever restrictions get lowered, that’s what people hear. They don’t hear the other things that are still in place.”

Bonneau said he doesn’t think this change will have a significant impact on faculty, since faculty and students are getting used to hybrid classes.

“I think faculty who are already teaching face to face will continue to do so,” he said. After the provost said more classes could move to in-person as of Sept. 14 if there was a “definable benefit,” Bonneau said the number of in-person classes went from 8 percent to around 12 percent. He’s hearing from many faculty that they won’t be making a change now that the campus is at Guarded.

“I just don’t see faculty making additional efforts to do that if the class is going well and their students are happy,” he said.

Malena Hirsch, president of the Graduate & Professional Student Government, told Senate Council on Oct. 13 that, “There are some concerns amongst graduate and professional students about this shift. Many TAs and GAs are feeling some pressure to now teach in person and felt somewhat unsupported in the shift in a matter of a week.” She noted that the timing has been a little overwhelming, since many of the graduate and professional students with teaching appointments were just getting out of midterms.

Eric Macadangdang, president of the undergraduate Student Government Board, told The Pitt News he believed it would be in the “best interest” for Pitt to remain in the Elevated risk phase for the entire fall semester.

“We’re just now getting settled,” Macadangdang said. “For many students, it was very difficult to adapt to this semester.”

The Pitt News editorial board also voiced its opinion: “Moving into the Guarded risk posture, and by extension allowing for much greater in-person instruction, puts students and the greater Oakland community at risk.

“The timing of the shift to the Guarded risk posture is concerning as it comes very soon after Pitt investigated Tower B for a potential cluster of COVID-19 cases. Though the residence hall was found not to have a cluster, it seems hasty to shift to the Guarded risk posture so soon after, even if Pitt is reporting low case numbers.”

Building access still controlled

DeJong said plans are still being worked out on building access during the extended break for students. It’s possible that Pitt employees will have to swipe their IDs to unlock access to the buildings. The holiday break, as always, will mean a deep cleaning for all Pitt facilities.

He said the building concierge program has been a big success, particularly for student workers, many of whom would not have had a job this semester. The concierge program now employs about 300 students. “Just across the board on all the campuses, they’re fantastic,” he said. “It was such a win-win all the way around.”

Initially, staff were being asked to volunteer to work time slots in the concierge program, but DeJong said they haven’t really needed them. Around 100 staff members volunteered and are on call to be concierges if needed. They probably will be put to use the week after students leave for Thanksgiving, but activities are still happening on campus.

Most students will leave campus the weekend before Thanksgiving. A Pitt spokesman said if students are unable to leave campus by Nov. 25, Pitt will offer interim housing from Nov. 26 to Dec. 5, when the semester officially ends. There also will be extended housing available for students who can’t leave over the winter break.

DeJong said the Pandemic Safety Ambassadors program has worked out well. More than 200 people volunteered to be ambassadors — a word he said was chosen carefully to indicate these are people who will answer questions, keep track of cleaning supplies and try to solve problems, but not dole out discipline for safety violations.

They will be looking at both programs to see what worked well and what didn’t in Pitt’s efforts to keep everyone healthy and safe.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


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