By SUSAN JONES and DONOVAN HARRELL
A new year has brought a new twist in the COVID-19 saga, with the omicron variant raging throughout the country and the world.
From Jan. 4 to 11, there were 209 positive student cases reported on the Oakland campus and 205 employees, according to the COVID-19 Medical Response Office. The regional campuses reported 36 student cases and 13 among employees. These numbers are particularly startling since campuses did not start reopening to students until Jan. 8.
At Pitt, that’s meant some changes to how the spring semester has begun and some potentially serious consequences for students and employees who do not comply with the University’s vaccine mandate.
In November, the University said all faculty, staff and students needed to either provide proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or an approved exemption by Dec. 6. Pitt officials this week said that the University has begun disenrolling students who have not complied with the mandate, and “we continue to work with employees who are not in compliance.”
“Faculty and staff who have not uploaded proof of vaccination or received an approved exemption cannot enter Pitt buildings, and therefore cannot work onsite,” a Pitt spokesman said. “Faculty and staff who remain out of compliance going forward will lose access to most enterprise IT applications, though will retain the ability to provide proof of vaccination or request an exemption.”
Pitt spokesman David Seldin said employees who choose not to take steps to return to compliance may be subject to additional disciplinary action per the University’s disciplinary guidelines, but he did not specify what those actions would be.
On Jan. 13, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked a rule by President Joe Biden's administration that said businesses with 100 or more employees must require their employees to be fully vaccinated or undergo regular testing and wear a face covering at work. A Pitt spokesman said the University’s vaccine requirement was implemented independent of the federal government mandates, therefore the Supreme Court ruling does not impact Pitt’s policy.
So far, Pitt said 96 percent of students and employees across all campuses are vaccinated, but it did not provide a breakdown of how many faculty, staff and students are in the remaining 4 percent. That’s up from 90 percent who complied with the vaccine policy in early November.
The University said it also is working with students who have been “disenrolled” to get them in compliance with the mandate, but declined to say just how many there are. Unvaccinated students with an approved exemption must still undergo weekly mandatory testing to maintain access to University buildings.
“Tuition refunds for any student who is disenrolled and chooses not to take steps to return to compliance and re-enroll will be managed under the standard tuition adjustment process,” Seldin said.
To help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among students returning to campus, Pitt implemented a staggered move-in schedule on the Oakland campus and announced that classes would be conducted remotely from the beginning of the semester on Jan. 10 through at least Jan. 26.
Two of the regional campuses also started the semester remotely. Greensburg plans to return to in-person classes on Jan. 18 and Bradford on Jan. 24. The Johnstown campus offered a remote option for faculty and students during the first week of classes and will return to fully in-person classes on Jan. 18.
In Oakland, students began returning to residence halls on Jan. 8 and will continue to arrive through Jan. 22. All students living in Pitt housing were required to provide a negative COVID-19 test before moving in. All students were asked to shelter in place for at least five days after arriving to help slow the spread of the virus.
“As we continue to monitor the spread of the new variant and its severity in our community, we will remain vigilant and adjust plans when necessary for the safety and health of our campuses,” Provost Ann Cudd said in an announcement on Dec. 30. “Your resilience and dedication to our mission over the past 22 months has been extraordinary, and I am once again calling on you for your continued flexibility and understanding.”
Senate Council President Robin Kear said the transition to remote teaching at the start of the semester was the right decision for Pitt, especially since little was known about the Omicron variant when the initial announcement was made.
“And I thought it was a prudent decision two weeks ago, and I think it's even a better decision now because of the level of community spread,” Kear said.
The University is prepared for the transition, she said, and Pitt has learned plenty about remote teaching since the start of the pandemic.
However, Kear said she wants students to transition back to an in-person experience as soon as possible. And Faculty can always request equipment or accommodations as needed, she added.
Lorraine Denman, co-chair of the Faculty Affairs committee and faculty member in French and Italian in the Dietrich School, agreed with Kear, saying the transition to remote teaching was the best decision.
Denman said faculty should be able to provide input on any decision that affects the length of the temporary transition to remote teaching.
“I believe that faculty should be consulted in the decision to extend any remote learning possibilities, and overall faculty should be allowed to participate in decisions that may affect their health or safety.”\
Denman added that she has had to review some of the techniques she used in the previous academic year to adjust to remote teaching again. She doesn’t expect faculty to have a difficult adjustment.
“While I do not particularly like teaching on Zoom, I am glad that students can have some time and liberty to come back to campus in a staggered way,” Denman said. “I feel that many faculty will already be familiar with the remote teaching environment and so will not have too much difficulty in these few weeks.”
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