Pitt remains at Elevated status, but revises guidelines on in-person classes


Pitt’s Oakland campus will remain in the Elevated status on Sept. 14 — the day Provost Ann Cudd said in August would be the earliest in-person classes would start — but the guidelines for what that means will allow for more in-person instruction, according to a Sept. 9 email from Provost Ann Cudd.

At the beginning of the semester, Pitt said at the Elevated Risk level, faculty and staff are still encouraged to work from home wherever possible, gatherings are capped at 25 people and instruction is done primarily virtually. 

The revised policy on instruction at the Elevated level says: “An in-person engagement option can also be provided when there is a definable benefit to in-person instruction and the dean or regional campus president or their designee grants permission via teaching implementation plans.”

The idea of “definable benefit” was vigorously debated at the Sept. 9 Faculty Assembly meeting, minutes after Cudd’s email was released. In the email, she said that, “The words ‘definable benefit’ may be broadly construed to include providing an opportunity for students to see one another and study together in the same classroom or allowing the students to see the room and their instructors in person, among others.”

Senate President Chris Bonneau said his interpretation of the revised policy is, “If you wish to teach in person, face to face, knowing that you're also going to have the asynchronous component and everything else that is part of it, … you can make that choice.”

Faculty Assembly member Tyler Bickford, an assistant professor in the English department, said he worries that, “This seems to create a situation where faculty will now be the targets of students’ frustration, making it an individual choice for each faculty, instead of a University-wide public health decision.”

Bonneau said he had the same concern, even though students will be made aware that Pitt’s operating status is not changing on Sept. 14.

“If you or anyone else you know is getting pushback from students complaining that you are exercising your right to teach remotely, I need to know about that,” he said. “Because that's something that we need to address quickly and decisively for everybody.”

The Shared Spaces health and safety guidelines document from the COVID-19 Medical Response Office now says: “In-person instruction that adheres to proper physical distancing (6 feet) is permitted. If a classroom cannot accommodate distancing, additional steps must be taken in order to comply, such as: moving to a larger space, staggering attendance, or conducting the course virtually.”

And yet, the number of people allowed to gather indoors remains at 25 under Pennsylvania Health Department and Allegheny County rules, and Bonneau said Pitt will adhere to those rules. “The COVID Medical Response Office’s position is that we can meet face to face safely, if instructors wanted to do that, under Elevated,” he said.

The Flex@Pitt model that the University has adopted allows both students and faculty to be either in the classroom or remote, and to learn synchronously or asynchronously. Special equipment from Radiant Technologies has been installed in most registrar-controlled classrooms that allow faculty who are in the classroom to interact with those who are in person and remote. One drawback for faculty who remain remote, according to some faculty who got a preview of the equipment in August, is that they can’t see the students who are in the classroom unless they all sign onto a Zoom meeting as well.

Lorraine Denman, a senior lecturer in Italian language, said she is still concerned about who would start the technology in the classroom if students want to be there, but the faculty member remains remote. She said she feels poorly trained on the Radiant equipment, particularly if students want to be in the classroom on Sept. 14.

Bonneau said he has already told his students that he will not be in the classroom, even if the University moves to the Guarded status. “It’s taken me three weeks to figure out how to do my class remotely, and I think I've kind of figured it out now,” he said. “For me to try and do it again, I'm not starting over.”

He acknowledged that some faculty members do want to be back in the classroom, and “we want to support the people who want to do that, while making sure that individuals are not penalized for not making that choice.”

Bonneau advised faculty to communicate to their students what they plan to do and what they recommend students do, based on best pedagogical practices. Then, he said, whether students are in the classroom or not is “out of our hands.”

Bickford said he was glad the University didn’t rush into the Guarded status at the beginning of the semester, even though that was the direction everything seemed to be moving. But when the public health situation changed, the COVID-19 Medical Response Team “stuck to its guns,” he said, and kept the Oakland campus at the Elevated status.

“I am worried that this decision is being made based on considerations about people's desire to be in the classroom, and the framework that we created that was supposed to be trusted is being changed in midstream,” he said. “As someone who doesn't have public health training and kind of has to trust that expertise, now I feel like it's all just sort of back on us.”

COVID cases continue to climb

Early in the semester, Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner warned that students who didn’t follow the University’s health and safety guidelines and gathered at parties where few wore masks or social distanced were “threatening a successful fall term for all of us. If you want to experience campus life as well as in-person classes this semester, then support the health and well-being of the members of our community with your actions.”

As of Sept. 8, Pitt’s COVID-19 Dashboard reported 128 students had tested posted for the virus since Aug. 1, when students began returning to the Oakland area; of those, 78 remain in isolation. There were 36 cases reported between Sept. 4 and 8. Most of these cases were students who sought testing after experiencing symptoms of the virus.

The five-day moving average of positive tests per day went from 7.6 to 10.0 from Sept. 4 to 8.

The number of isolating students includes those in University-provided facilities and those who are at their permanent residence. Pitt has 179 isolation beds available, with the ability to add 20 more.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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