What we know about spring semester (and what still has to be decided)


After a fall semester like no other, get ready for a spring semester like … well probably pretty much like the fall.

What we know for sure — classes will start Jan. 19 using the Flex@Pitt model.

What we really don’t know — when students will return to Pitt’s campuses.


As of Dec. 15, the Oakland campus has reported 691 positive cases among students since Aug. 1 and 94 among employees who had been campus during the previous 14 days — including seven students and five employees since the previous report on Dec. 11.

Of the student cases, only 33 came from the 7,428 people who participated in surveillance testing, which will continue on Dec. 15 and 16 and resume after winter break.

The regional campuses have had 106 student cases and 26 employees. All campuses are currently at the Elevated Risk posture. Most Pitt facilities are now closed or have limited access and will not reopen until at least Jan. 4.  

Because of the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic and the increasing number of cases and deaths across the state and the nation, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and John Williams, head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office, both said at the Dec. 10 Senate Council meeting that it is too early to decide how and when students will be allowed back on campus.

“What we don’t know is how much we need to modify that arrival period based on what’s happening at the time,” Gallagher said. “In the middle of December, it is simply too early for us to say what the middle of January is going to be.”

The earliest any decision will be announced on when students will be return also is Jan. 4, the medical response office said in an email sent out Dec. 10. Students will be given at least two weeks’ notice before they move back, and Gallagher and Williams said the move-in will be staggered like it was in the fall.

What does that all mean? If the University says on Jan. 4 that students can begin moving back to campus in two weeks, then the first group of students would arrive no earlier than Jan. 18. In the fall, it took two weeks for all the students in Oakland residence halls to move in, which would put the last students arriving on Feb. 1.

But it’s possible that the announcement will not come until later. As Williams said, one of the big challenges for bringing students back is the traveling. In the summer, there were students from virus hotspots that Pitt officials had to pay particular attention to, but now, “everywhere is a hot spot,” he said. “Number two, it’s going to be right after a holiday break where one can presume that students are going to be congregating and gathering, as we saw over Thanksgiving, in many places in the country.”

If any announcement about when students can return is delayed beyond Jan. 4, then that pushes back move-in days. The takeaway from the University’s announcement this week should be: Don’t make any travel plans yet.

Gallagher said if students are not able to adjust their travel plans, “please let us know so we can work with you to make sure we can accommodate you.”

An FAQ on the Panther Central website addresses several issues surrounding housing in the spring semester and the return to campus. For instance, it says that housing and meal plan fees will be prorated based on spring arrival, and it gives information on how to withdraw from housing if a student chooses not to return to campus. Flex@Pitt allows students to take all classes remotely, even if some provide in-person learning at some point during the semester.  

Students also will be expected to do pre- and post-travel quarantining, and surveillance testing will continue in the spring. Senate President Chris Bonneau said he is talking with Williams and the COVID response office about surveillance testing for faculty and staff who have to be on campus, as well.

Adjusting to new state restrictions

Right now, the University is looking at how it needs to adjust operations because of the state’s new COVID-related restrictions, including limiting indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people. The University Healthcare Advisory Group will review the governor’s orders, a Pitt spokesman said, and make recommendations to the senior leadership team if necessary.

Because most Pitt employees will be on winter break through Jan. 4, when the state’s newest orders expire, the University shouldn’t have to make many changes.

Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for Research, said in a recent announcement that, “Our expectation is that research operations can continue as safely as possible in all operational postures and while we continually reassess to align with evolving governmental guidance. Any move to the High Risk posture is not intended to reinstate a research ramp down such as we did in March.”

The Health Care Advisory Group temporarily suspended Tier 3 human subjects research for in-person visits on Nov. 23, so it could review oversight processes, Rutenbar’s message said. But it now recommends that Tier 3 human subjects research protocols can be resumed in cases where the principal investigator attests that the specific enhanced precautions are being used and has provided an electronic signed letter of attestation to the responsibility center head.

On Dec. 16, Pennsylvania’s departments of Health and Education, in a joint statement, urged colleges to use virtual instruction “to the maximum extent feasible and consider the delay of students returning to their campuses.” The departments cited modeling that projects COVID-19 related hospitalizations could peak in January and February. The statement did not specify when it might be safer for students to return.

Most schools in the state have already delayed the start of spring semester, with many — such as Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Indiana University of Pennsylvania — resuming classes on Jan. 19. Carnegie Mellon announced in September that the spring semester wouldn’t start until Feb. 1, 2021, to avoid having students on campus at a time when the flu and covid-19 are expected to peak. Duquesne plans to come back on Jan. 21.

Pitt weathered fall well

One bright spot from Williams’ report to Senate Council is, “There was no evidence here, nor in other schools around the country, of transmission in classrooms, labs, clinical educational settings, things like that, because these are settings where mitigation measures are happening.”

Both Gallagher and Williams paid tribute to Pitt’s students who, by and large, followed the COVID-19 rules to try to prevent a large outbreak.

“I think the students showed that they were very willing partners,” Williams said. “We had as good or better numbers as many peer institutions, including institutions that used mass testing strategies. … We had a successful semester. Did the students have the ideal experience? No, but every single student I talked to out of hundreds said they would rather be here participating with mitigation restrictions, than to be fully online.”

“I’m really incredibly proud of the University and how it responded,” Gallagher said. “Unfortunately, I think we’re going to have to draw on that even more as we go into this challenging spring semester.”

Gallagher said Pitt was among “best in class of major universities in terms of our virus performance and this is true across all of our campuses. The thing that made it work, simply put, was people bought into this. … I’m the first one to tell you this is hard — this is isolating, it’s lonely, it’s tiring, it’s exhausting, and it doesn’t ever go away … but you did it anyway.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


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