By SUSAN JONES
The masks came off this week for most inside locations on Pitt’s campuses to mixed reactions.
The administration says it’s now a matter of individual choice over institutional control, but the new Union of Pitt Faculty says it should have been involved in the decision making because it involves workplace conditions.
While many students started out the week still wearing masks to class, those numbers seemed to dwindle as the week went on, according to students and faculty.
The administration’s position
At the March 24 Senate Council meeting, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said Pitt’s decision-making during the pandemic has always been tied to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the masking policy is no different.
The CDC’s new guidance says people should continue to wear masks inside when the counties they are in are at high risk of COVID-19, and focuses more on the severity of disease and hospitalization rates than case counts. The latest risk map shows all of Pennsylvania, except three northeast counties, are at low risk.
Gallagher said the Pitt community should respect anybody's decision about whether they wear a mask or not, but faculty cannot require students to wear masks in their classrooms or offices.
“One of the things that we want to make sure is that we don't set up a situation where people have confrontations,” Geovette Washington, Pitt’s chief legal officer, said at the Senate Council meeting. “I think if there are people — faculty, staff or anybody — who feel uncomfortable being in a room with an unmasked person, we think that they should use a remote option, particularly in those one-on-one settings. We are asking people not to ask people because we think that it will lead to a lot of discontent and situations that will be difficult to handle.”
Gallagher noted that classrooms have been low-risk environments, even before vaccines were available, and individuals who are concerned about exposure can protect themselves by wearing a properly fitted, high-efficiency mask. The University continues to make masks available for free at the entrance of many campus buildings.
In a message to staff, James Gallaher, vice chancellor for human resources, said staff cannot request a revision to their flexible work agreements due to the updated mask policy.
Anyone with a health issue — faculty, staff or students — who may need an accommodation should contact Disability Resources and Services.
Faculty union complaint
On March 25, the faculty union, which is part of the United Steelworkers, filed an unfair practice charge against Pitt with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board alleging the decision to change masking requirements should have been negotiated, since it significantly changes working conditions for faculty.
Melinda Ciccocioppo, a lecturer in the psychology department who heads the union’s communication and action team, said the union took this action because it was an urgent situation that couldn’t wait until a contract was negotiated.
“Our approach from the beginning … is to make sure that the most vulnerable faculty and students and staff are safe and protected,” she said. “And so we have asked administration to give broad approval to requests for accommodation to teach or to work remotely.”
She also said they’d like to see clearer guidelines on how and when faculty can request accommodations. If faculty members are denied a request for accommodations, Ciccocioppo said they can reach out to their representative on the union’s Council of Representatives. She said the union’s bargaining committee had a preliminary session with Pitt administrators, but has gotten no formal response on its requests.
As of April 1, the Pitt administration had not received the complaint from the PLRB, according to spokesman David Seldin, so it was not able to comment on it.
What faculty are saying
The faculty reaction to the lifting of indoor mask requirements has been as varied as the faculty themselves.
Thottala Jayaraman, an associate professor in the School of Dental Medicine, said: “I teach dental medicine students and feel that we should have mask requirement inside the classroom for the remaining term. I do not see any air ventilation in the lecture rooms. With so many students in the classroom and both doors closed, I am worried of infection.”
But Ben Bratman, professor of legal writing in the School of Law, said: “I’m strongly in favor of the lifting of the mandate, especially for those of us who are classroom teachers. I teach for a two-hour block, and doing so masked caused me massive exhaustion — due to the extra effort needed to project adequately and the oxygen deprivation. The significant majority of my students are no longer wearing masks, and that allows me to relate to them and connect with them more meaningfully.”
Chris Bonneau, a political science professor and immediate past president of the University Senate, said: “I think this was absolutely the correct decision. Pitt has been closely following public health guidance from the start, so there is no reason not to on mandatory masking.”
Alan Hirschman, a professor of bioengineering in the Swanson School, said he has let his class of 29 student know that, “I want them to mask in class unless they are presenting at the podium. So far, I have not gotten push back on this. (They know I am 75 years old!). Personally, I do not know why the University made masking optional when Omicron B.A.2 is in the community.” He said the decision should have been done collaboratively between the administration and the Faculty Senate.
“I’m more surprised than concerned about the change,” said Pat Loughlin, chair of bioengineering. “Even though daily cases are way down from the peak, they are still not as low as they were at this time two years ago, or even last summer. More concerning is that the infection rate in Allegheny County, while still (barely) below pandemic levels, has been steadily rising since mid-March.”
He said he wonders why the administration didn’t simply opt to “stay the course” for the few weeks remaining in the semester. “It seems to me that would have been the least risky move (from a health perspective), and would likely have caused less consternation and unease, given that we have all acclimated since last September to wearing masks.”
Ilia Murtazashvili, associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said that Pitt policy’s during the pandemic have “erred far too much on the side of caution. Beyond keeping mask mandates longer than most businesses and elementary schools, the policies for travel were out of step with many professional organizations. Once Pitt required vaccinations, they could have encouraged but not mandated masks and you would probably have been able to do so without any problems.”
Juan Taboas, associate professor in the School of Dental Medicine, said eliminating the masking mandate was a good decision, since it is consistent with CDC and other guidelines and, “It was always the position of the University to return to normal operations when risk was low.”
But he said there’s no reason faculty can’t tell others they are concerned for their own health and ask them to wear masks, particularly for office hours.
“Further, faculty should be able to make risk-based assessments for their labs,” Taboas said. “There are teaching environments where the interpersonal interactions are closer, like hands-on training at the bench and in anatomy labs. Risk of transmission of any disease is higher. The dental clinics require masks when treating patients (very close interaction), so too should certain class environments be permitted.”
What about research facilities?
“There are always some edge cases” when lifting the mask mandate, Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, said at the Senate Research committee on March 18 — before the mask mandate removal had been announced.
Some Pitt research faculty work in medical and other settings owned by other concerns, such as UPMC, and will have to follow the latter's rules, Rutenbar said. He also noted that Pitt researchers will be working with human subjects who may inquire about whether a researcher is vaccinated before agreeing to participate, or “demand that someone wear a mask” or even “demand that someone take off their mask,” and the researchers will need to know University rules in such cases.
His office is making sure it has answers that follow CDC and legal guidelines, he said, even though such concerns “will affect a teeny, tiny fraction of us.”
Michael Holland, vice chancellor for science policy and research strategies, added that “aerosol-generating procedures may be a questionable situation” where masks could still be required by the University. “We will have the website language posted as soon as that gets reviewed.”
Rutenbar said that other institutions have dropped mask mandates generally but kept the mandate in their classrooms, while at Pitt, “the mask mandate goes away for geographies in low and medium COVID risk.”
Geovette Washington said at Senate Council that signage is being installed to “tell when you go to different places whether or not you need to wear a mask. It’ll predominantly say where you have to wear a mask, not where you don’t have to.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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