By SUSAN JONES
Provost Ann Cudd’s announcement last week that faculty and students could teach and learn remotely or in person during the first two weeks of the semester has sparked conversations across the University about what this will mean going forward, especially as the Delta variant of COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing its spread.
Cudd said this week that Pitt’s Health Care Advisory Group and the COVID-19 Medical Response Office (CMRO) are monitoring a number of different aspects to determine when they are absolutely sure about safety in classrooms.
Chief among those is the vaccination rates of faculty, staff and students. But they’re also looking at vaccination rates and the spread of the infection in the county, along with compliance by the Pitt community with health standards such as masking and social distancing.
“The main reason for the pause was that we want to prove a higher vaccination rate, so that we can just reassure everybody that with the universal masking indoors and high rates of vaccination, it’s safe in the classroom,” Cudd said.
Figures released Aug. 26 by the CMRO showed a 10 percent increase in the number of people in the Pitt community who have submitted proof of vaccination. For the Pittsburgh campus, 77 percent of undergraduate students have been vaccinated against COVID-19, which includes 95 percent of students living in University housing and 56 percent of off-campus students. In addition, 69 percent of faculty, 71 percent of staff and 48 percent of graduate students have uploaded proof of vaccination. (See related story for figures at the regional campuses.)
The number of cases in Allegheny County has been steadily increasing since mid-June, with 1,136 confirmed cases last week. Almost all are in unvaccinated people. Around 65 percent of adults are vaccinated in Allegheny County and in Pennsylvania.
All three approved COVID-19 vaccines are available through Pitt's vaccination clinic on the Fifth Avenue side of Nordenberg Hall. Find out more details here.
Flexibility is still the key
While the Flex@Pitt plan used last year for hybrid instruction is officially not in use now, flexibility is still the key word being used by administrators and staff.
After the CDC said in July that even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in public in places with higher transmission rates, Senate Council President Robin Kear said she started hearing some hesitancy from faculty who were concerned about coming back and were asking for more flexibility.
“I trust faculty to do what’s best for their classes,” Kear said, whether that’s returning to the classroom or remaining remote during these two weeks.
Many faculty were already prepared to be flexible and have included Zoom links with their course syllabus in case remote instruction becomes necessary. There’s no official count on how many classes will be virtual during these first two weeks, but anecdotally many professors are choosing the remote option.
Also, around 5 percent of classes were already scheduled to be online for the entire semester, according to the registrar’s office. Some language classes have chosen to be remote because it’s important for instructors to see a student’s mouth when they are working on pronunciation, which is not possible if they are wearing a mask.
At the Swanson School of Engineering, spokesman Paul Kovach said: “We think this two week period will provide a good settling-in period for faculty and staff, as well as allow the University to get a better picture of our community’s overall health. As soon as we had to shift to virtual platforms back in 2020, our associate dean for academic affairs, program directors, IT personnel and Engineering Education Research Center made sure that our faculty were prepared. We’re just as ready to adapt to the next two weeks.”
The engineering school’s Benedum Hall classrooms are already equipped with technology for hybrid classes, Kovach said. In other areas, the University Center for Teaching and Learning is not encouraging the use of the instructional technology that was temporarily installed in many of Pitt’s general purpose classrooms last year, Michael Arenth, the center’s director of educational technology, said. Instead, the teaching center is helping faculty develop customized solutions to meet the requirements of their specific courses for the short-term (remote option) and long-term (face-to-face). For more resources from the Teaching Center, see related story.
The two week pause also will help Pitt collect more data on vaccination rates and on COVID cases on campus. Mandatory testing will begin next week for faculty, staff and students who have not uploaded proof of vaccination by midnight Aug. 28.
“I think that we’re going to have to learn to coexist with coronavirus for the long term,” Kear said. “If we have higher vaccination rates, then we’ll have less variance, that’s the goal. …. and then we would be able to coexist easier.”
One issue still being worked on is how to make accommodations for people who can’t be in the classroom at all, because of compromised immune systems or other issues.
“It is a really high bar to make the case that, absolutely, you can’t go into the classroom, because of a disability that could be accommodated,” Cudd said. “But I do know that there are a few cases where students are being accommodated by requiring some kind of remote access. What we’re doing right now is figuring out how to operationalize that.”
A solution being considered is having an avatar in the classroom who would ask the question for a student working remotely.
“It’s a new kind of accommodation, but I think one of the things that disabled activists especially have pointed out and our equity and inclusion office has pointed out, is that we’ve now proven that it’s possible to remotely participate,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is create a situation where every faculty member has to basically teach every class in two different ways at the same time, which we think will degrade the quality of both.”
Kear said she’s heard of some faculty members who are receiving accommodations from Disability Resources and Services for a student who needs to be remote. “That’s a new facet for faculty to think through how do I accommodate that reasonably without recreating everything for one student at a time,” she said.
Flexibility for staff
The transition of staff back to campus — many with hybrid work arrangements — was supposed to be completed before the beginning of the semester.
David DeJong, senior vice chancellor for business & operations, said that Human Resources is encouraging supervisors “to remain flexible and responsive to circumstances during this time. We are proceeding with a gradual transition — extending return plans through mid-September and encouraging staff to speak with their supervisor about plans over the coming weeks.”
Staff Council noted in a statement that, “With most employees working remotely over these past 18 months, we have proven ourselves. In most circumstances, productivity has been maintained and improved.
“Considering the Delta variant, we are thankful that leadership notices the stress and concern with returning to campus. We hope that they continue to work with staff by being as transparent as possible with clear communications, providing for our needs regardless of being on campus or at home. We hope that the steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace will continue. Flexibility, understanding and empathy are crucial to keeping all safe and our University forging ahead.”
Students have had a mixed reaction to the virtual option for the first two weeks.
Student Government Board President Harshitha Ramanan said, “SGB does support the provost in having the virtual option for the first two weeks for a slower transition back to in-person learning. However, I think where students are frustrated is due to the delayed communication. Because this message was sent so close to classes starting, I think everyone was a bit shocked.
“I think what would be useful moving forward is to continue having a virtual option throughout the semester. Everyone has gotten so used to online learning in the last year and a half, so it would be helpful to students physical and mental health to have a slow transition back to in-person classes.”
The Pitt News editorial board took a harsher stance on the provost’s decision. In an editorial earlier this week, the student newspaper said: “Pitt’s last-minute decision to give us the option between remote and in-person classes is half-baked, noncommittal and puts unnecessary stress on both students and professors who shouldn’t have to make this choice in the first place. The decision shifts responsibility from the University onto the people who have had more than enough of Pitt’s lack of assertiveness when making COVID-19-related decisions.
“Pitt needs to commit — to either in-person classes or online — and deal with the resulting consequences, rather than putting the decision on students and professors.”
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.