Semester ahead may be as changeable as the weather


So here we are at the beginning of a semester like no other for Pitt and colleges around the nation and world.

There are glimmers of the new normal — students on campus, buildings opening, dining options expanding, and the possible return to in-person classes on the Oakland campus on Sept. 14. But if the last five months have taught us anything, we know that could change at any time.

“The posture I want people to get familiar with is, it’s more like watching the weather forecast,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in an interview with the University Times. “Every week, what we can do and not do is going to depend on the circumstances we face.”

With that in mind, the chancellor said it’s reasonable to expect that within a week the Pitt community in Oakland will know whether circumstances are changing favorably or not favorably to allow in-person classes to start on Sept. 14.

“Everything that was important to the university before still has to be important to the university now,” Gallagher said. “It’s just the way we carry it out now has to integrate this new safety program or health program. I think that this narrative about going back to normal or being in an emergency has been really harmful, because the whole idea here was to adapt to a new normal that would allow us to do all of the things that a university could do.”

That means there have definitely been changes on all of Pitt’s campuses. The regionals have all moved to the Guarded Risk posture that allows for in-person classes, but the new norms of face masks and social distancing remain. The Oakland campus is still at the Elevated Risk as the last students return to Pittsburgh today.

So far, at least eight students and nine Greek organizations are facing discipline because of violations of Pitt’s health and safety rules, but Gallagher remains “cautiously optimistic.” 

“In the face of all the unknowns, I have to say in many ways it’s going very well. Students, by and large, are doing a great job; are taking it seriously; are wearing a mask; and are adhering to the rules,” he said. “I think the great unknown, that you see being … highlighted by some of the experiences at other campuses, is when something goes wrong … and these precautions aren’t followed, the virus is just not very forgiving, and things can change quickly.”

Chris Bonneau, Senate Council president, said that compared to some other colleges, “their plans are much more brittle than ours. I still think we have a good plan. … We all have to do our part, and I feel like from the planning perspective, we’ve done our part.”

The Flex@Pitt plan allows for students and faculty to decide individually whether to be in-person, when allowed, or remote.

On Aug. 19, the day classes started on all campuses remotely, Provost Ann Cudd announced that the Oakland campus would remain virtual until at least Sept. 14.

“This adjustment to the schedule will allow for the completion of staged arrival and shelter-in-place procedures so that all students can start in-person classes at the same time,” Cudd said in her email.

Students have been returning to the Pittsburgh campus in groups of 1,500 since Aug. 11. Pitt is randomly testing around 400 students in each group of 1,500. John Williams, head of the COVID-19 Medical Response Office, reported earlier this week that since Aug. 12, only two of 1,225 randomly selected students have tested positive. These numbers do not include students who were tested this week or who were tested after experiencing coronavirus-like symptoms. Pitt plans to continue the surveillance testing of asymptomatic students throughout the semester.

Gallagher and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner have been very specific in their warning to students that violations of the health and safety standards will not be tolerated.

In an email on Aug. 19, Bonner said: “Let me be clear: Your behavior is 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.”

Bonner reiterated his concerns in another email to students on Aug. 26: “Despite compliance by most of our student body, however, we have had a concerning number of reports about off-campus large gatherings and parties where students are not physical distancing or wearing face coverings, as well as on-campus outdoor gatherings where too many people are not following physical distancing guidelines. We must do better.

Students who host large parties could lose on-campus housing and access to all University buildings, even while a hearing is being conducted on the allegations. If found in violation, students could face suspension through the end of the semester. Even those who just attend these parties could lose on-campus housing for the rest of the semester or access to all University buildings.

Gallagher similarly told the incoming freshman class on Aug. 18 that “if this isn’t for you and you can’t take on this responsibility, then please go home. Your actions will only be endangering others, and you’re not welcome on our campus.”

This week, Gallagher said the problem is that humans are social creatures and universities are designed to help make those social connections.

“This virus sort of penalizes social connections, and I think that’s why this has been such a challenge,” he said. “What I will say is that it is increasingly clear that masking and social distancing work. And I think that’s why you’re seeing now a focus on those remaining social situations where people don’t wear masks, and those are situations where there’s food and drink. That’s why parties, restaurants and bars are the focal point now.”

Gallagher spoke on a variety of other topics during his interview with the University Times, including retirement incentives, ACC football, the naming of Scaife Hall and a new one-credit Black anti-racism course. Follow the links to stories on those issues.

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


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