By SUSAN JONES
On Jan. 19, classes will resume throughout Pitt, but the return of students to campus won’t be complete until Feb. 5.
The University announced on Jan. 13 that move in for Oakland-based students in residence halls will begin on Jan. 29 and continue on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3 and 5. Students have been assigned specific dates so that residents will move in on the same day as their floor or other students living near them. Students in off-campus housing also are being asked to delay their return until Jan. 29. The regional campuses have specific move-in schedules starting on Jan. 29.
Students living in University housing will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test result before moving in. Pitt has again partnered with Quest Diagnostics and will cover the cost of one SARS-CoV-2 PCR test per student, if ordered between Jan. 13 and 27.
Students also are being asked to shelter in place for seven days before arriving on campus and until 10 days after the last cohort returns to campus. This would mean the shelter-in-place order would be in effect until at Feb. 15 on the Oakland campus and Feb. 10 at the regionals, which will move in most of their students the weekend of Jan. 29 to 31.
While most classes will start out online only — and many will remain that way throughout the semester — Provost Ann Cudd said in a message to Pittsburgh faculty on Jan. 12 that with many graduate and undergraduate students living off campus, “in-person instruction can be provided for them from the first day of classes and moving forward, when consistent with the University’s health rules, unless otherwise announced.”
The number of classes that will have an in-person option remains "an evolving situation and we might have more information available as the term moves forward," a Pitt spokesman said.
In the fall, almost all classes remained remote at least until move-in was completed, “so that all students can start in-person classes at the same time,” Cudd said in August.
In her message to faculty this week, Cudd stressed the “need for academic flexibility” as students will be moving into their housing during class time. “Consequently, they may experience disruption to their classwork, and you may need to adjust assignments or due dates accordingly,” she said.
Despite being told to shelter in place for 10 days after arriving on campus and the University remaining at the Elevated Risk posture, students on the Oakland campus will be allowed to attend in-person classes during that period. This raised questions at this week’s Faculty Assembly meeting.
“That doesn't seem to make much sense,” said Patrick Loughlin, a professor at the Swanson School of Engineering. “We started off with two weeks of full virtual in the fall, and the COVID situation is worse now than it was then. I appreciate that they're delaying students coming back and they're asking them to shelter in place, but I don't understand why we would allow them to attend in-person class.”
Senate President Chris Bonneau said he raised this question with Pitt leadership and was told that, “the concern was that in the fall what end up happening with delay of the two weeks is both students and faculty settled into a kind of inertia, where since they started online, they would stay online. And a non-trivial number of students prefer an in-person experience. And so by delaying further, we risk getting into the inertia part again, where then everything is basically de facto online, which works against the flexibility that was built into Flex@Pitt.”
Pitt spokesman Kevin Zwick said, “At Pitt and across the country, classrooms have not been a significant source of transmission. With the health and mitigation measures we have implemented in our classrooms, in-person classes are among the lowest-risk, highest-reward activities.”
The provost’s message said the fall COVID-19 Student Survey on the Oakland campus “revealed feelings of low engagement and sense of connection with their fellow students and professors.”
She encouraged faculty to “think about additional ways to engage your students — both in and outside the classroom — and to plan for a time to meet with them. I have heard some great ideas from instructors on our campuses. From being available to students either before or after class — in person or remotely — to establishing virtual office hours, engagement is always key to our success.”
In October, Cudd hosted a town hall featuring faculty who have been using innovative ideas to teach students who are in the classroom or attending remotely.
Faculty continue to have the option to teach in person or remotely, Bonneau stressed at the Faculty Assembly meeting. In the fall, Provost Cudd asked faculty to provide an in-classroom experience for students in courses that had an assigned classroom, even if the instructor was teaching remotely.
Her message this week did not repeat this request, but reiterated that, “Our students crave opportunities to get to know us and each other and to feel our support and guidance in this isolating and frightening time in our nation’s history.”
Testing and vaccines
In addition to the now-familiar safety precautions — wearing masks, social distancing, etc. — Pitt will continue to do surveillance testing on all campuses in the spring term. The latest report from Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office on Jan. 8 showed 14 new cases among students who have been on the Oakland campus in the past seven days and 19 students in isolation, despite a limited number of students being on campus. There also were six new cases among Pitt employees in Oakland and one at Pitt–Bradford. All campuses are still at Elevated Risk.
During the fall, Pitt selected a random group of around 200 students twice a week to be tested. Earlier this week, Carnegie Mellon University officials said they now have the capability to offer weekly COVID-19 tests to everyone coming to campus this spring — around 10,000 weekly. Results will be available in two to three business days, using a lab established by CMU.
In Allegheny County, there have been more than 1,800 probable cases reported in the past week.
Bonneau said at Faculty Assembly that forward-facing faculty and staff would be included in the surveillance testing, but Zwick said, “Discussions about including faculty and staff are ongoing, and we will provide an update in the near future on those plans.”
Pitt also is actively engaged in securing COVID-19 vaccinations for students, faculty and staff, according to the COVID-19 Medical Response Office. Currently, vaccines are primarily going to health care workers. “As we wait for distribution to broaden to other entities — including Pennsylvania universities — we are working to secure the approvals necessary to acquire and directly distribute vaccines to our students, faculty and staff,” the COVID office said.
Cost of housing delay
Because students will be returning to on-campus housing later than originally planned, housing and dining costs will be prorated based on the date housing was originally scheduled to open (Jan. 10) to the newly announced date (Jan. 29).
Zwick said it is too early to determine the total cost of these prorated refunds. “While there are still uncertainties in the current fiscal year, the University has budgeted a range of approximately $90 million to 130 million as a result of COVID costs and lost revenues in the FY 2021 budget, in addition to the approximately $50 million impact experienced in FY 2020,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Education on Jan. 14 announced that the latest pandemic-related stimulus package includes $21.2 billion in the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Pitt is set to receive $30.6 million from this fund, with half dedicated to direct student aid. (See related story.)
Students have until Feb. 5 to withdraw from housing and have charges reversed. So far, retention is comparable to last year, Zwick said. Some students are departing campus to attend Pitt remotely through Flex@Pitt while new residents are moving into University housing for the spring semester, keeping overall totals consistent with the fall at this time.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.