Your pandemic stories: Accessibility, flexibility, collaboration and smiling at the camera

Each of us has a story to tell about how we’ve weathered the past year. There have been trials that have tested our resolve and patience, and there have been triumphs that give us hope for the future.

We asked you to tell us how you’ve adapted during the pandemic, and we got a variety of responses. Maybe you’ll be inspired after reading these to send us your story. We plan to run more if we get them. Send your responses to

As for the University Times, we continue to evolve in how we cover the University completely remotely but hope to one day soon see the Cathedral of Learning in person and walk the streets of Oakland again.


A message From Chancellor Gallagher

This year has been exceedingly difficult, and here we are — one year in — still searching for the pandemic’s finish line.

Yet, there are reasons to be optimistic. On every Pitt campus, faculty and staff have been advancing our mission — in large ways and small — to create and leverage knowledge for society’s gain. You’ve had to roll with the punches (there have been no shortage of those), and you’ve done so with characteristic Pittsburgh grit.

For this, I say thank you.   

No matter what our workspaces look like these days, I think we can all agree that Pitt is an incredible place. I just hope that we can gather together very soon. Until then, please know that I am grateful for your efforts.


If I have to look at myself, I might as well smile

Linda Tashbook
Foreign international comparative law librarian, Barco Law Library

Linda Tashbook on blue backgroundYears ago, in a performance evaluation, my boss told me to stop rolling my eyes in meetings. I knew that I’d been thinking eye rolling thoughts in meetings, but I hadn’t realized that my eyes were actually carrying out those thoughts.

Between that conversation and the COVID pandemic’s proliferation of online visual interaction, I stopped thinking about my face. But Zoom and Teams forced me to see what everyone else had seen all along — the full range of facial expressions from agony and boredom through wry and yawning. (I’m a librarian; I alphabetize things.)  It wasn’t just me, of course; the gallery view puts everyone on display. The lucky few with poor camera resolution and lenses blurred by the residue of masking tape intended to block Internet spies had less to worry about than those of us with better optics who could be seen more clearly.

Early on, I tried to avoid looking at myself. It was impossible though. The default settings put each person’s own image at the top of their screen, no matter how many other people attend the same online event. Fortunately, being someone who’s easily amused, I saw myself smiling sometimes. On the other hand, being known as a smart aleck through most of elementary school, it was apparent that I had finally heeded the admonishment to “wipe that smile off (my) face” especially when anyone laughed at my remarks.

But I look good with a smile — better than I look with any other expression. And the stress management experts say that smiling makes us feel better. So now I smile a lot more often in meetings and I plan to keep smiling well beyond the pandemic … even if folks don’t know what I’m smiling about, even if they roll their eyes at me.


Forced online work made accessibility even more important

Angie Bedford-Jack
Digital Accessibility Coordinator, Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Portrait of Angie Bedford-JackThe pandemic has changed my life and the ways that I work in countless ways. But it has also solidified both why and how I do the work that I do. So in that sense, it has been a grounding force. 

As we moved our work, teaching and learning online, the need for software and content to be accessible to ALL people was really brought to the forefront. I think the need for accessibility became really apparent to a lot of people in ways that it wasn’t before. Of course, this new recognition was complicated by the fact that people were often facing a real learning curve in terms of remote teaching and working as well as potential budget deficits. So suddenly people believed in the need for accessibility, but they felt increasingly unsure of their ability to make things more accessible. 

This combination reinforced for me what I’ve always known to be true — you need to meet people where they are. There wasn’t going to be a silver bullet, some magical piece of software I could purchase that would fix everything. And I couldn’t bulldoze everyone and force them to make things accessible or else. Instead, I needed to nurture their newfound understanding and interest while slowly working to abate their fears. And we’re making progress at Pitt. Slowly but surely, we’re making progress. This pandemic has wreaked havoc in so many ways, but when it comes to accessibility, it has largely done quite the opposite.


From Academia to Panacademia

Chris Bonneau
Political science professor and Senate president

Chris BonneauIt has been about a year since life has been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For us at Pitt, this has affected the past three semesters, and faculty members have had to go to extraordinary lengths to deliver instruction, mentor students and conduct research.

While there are advantages to working from home (no commute time, no shoes, easy napping ability), we should acknowledge working from home = living at work. This means work-life balance, which we all struggle with anyway, has been nonexistent for many of us. And that is just on the work front.

Many of us have childcare responsibilities, caregiving responsibilities, have suffered layoffs and furloughs in our families, experienced increased anxiety over the public health situation, had bouts of depression over the isolation from others, etc. In a word, the past 12 months have been … exhausting. (I would normally add one of my favorite adjectives that starts with “f” before “exhausting,” but this is a family publication.)

As we emerge from the pandemic, it would be a shame if we abandoned some of the things that have worked well that could make our lives easier going forward. For me, one of these is having a virtual option for most meetings. Yes, face-to-face is better. But, depending on the meeting, virtual works just fine. Moreover, this would allow for greater participation among faculty and staff from across all of our campuses. On a day when I only have one or two meetings, it is inefficient to come to campus when I can just as effectively participate from home. This is extra time I can spend with my family.

Another thing that I think is worth keeping is having virtual speakers, both in class and for departments. I have been able to have a variety of guest speakers in my classes because they could Zoom in for 30 to 45 minutes, as opposed to come to campus, park, get back to their job, etc. Cutting out the travel time makes people more likely to participate.

The same is true for research talks: we can bring in more speakers from more places using a virtual format. This will not be appropriate for all cases (such as job talks), but for seminar series it works fine. This can also help us in diversifying the speakers we invite, because it opens up participation to those who are less able to travel.

I am not a “glass half full” kind of guy, and the human and economic devastation of the past year has been horrific. Despite the circumstances, I have learned some things that can help make things better (for me and others) going forward, and there is no reason not to implement them.


Office space, virtual seminars and collaborative research

Ilia Murtazashvili 
Associate professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and associate director, Center for Governance and Markets  

Ilia MurtazashviliThe pandemic has been an enormous challenge for faculty. We have four kids who have not been in school or daycare since early March of 2020, and we’re now homeschooling our kids because remote school wasn’t working (my spouse is also a Pitt professor).  

Despite the challenges, there are three good things that came from this. One is working out of an office space. Pitt’s policies on office use were extremely tough on parents with kids at home. The first month of the pandemic was terrible for us with all the kids at home and no office, but then we discovered the many great office spaces in East Liberty. We met some great folks, developed some partnerships, and made new friends. We will keep it after the pandemic for sure.  

A second thing we are going to keep doing are virtual seminars. Our Center for Governance and Markets decided to use this opportunity to do more seminars on timely topics. We did this with virtual seminars and virtual roundtables. This allowed us to reach much broader audiences on timely topics such as the economics of racism and discrimination, policing and police reform, authoritarianism in Belarus, and the cultural genocide in Xinjiang. We will do some workshops in person, but a strong digital presence will continue.  

Third, our research has become much more collaborative and integrated. The pandemic means a lot of folks will have gaps in their productivity. Working collaboratively on more projects smooths out those gaps and enables those who face constraints to still participate in research and to produce during a tough time. Team production is inclusive and ultimately allows for more engagement with timely topics.  

In all, the pandemic makes things tough, but we were able to find some areas of innovation. I guess necessity does give rise to some innovation. 


Flexibility and understanding must continue post-pandemic

R. David Lebel
Associate Professor, Katz School of Business and College of Business Administration

R. David LebelPersonally, one thing I hope to retain post pandemic is taking breaks from work by getting outside for a walk in the afternoon. It’s really helped break up the monotony of being at home or on Zoom all day.

Professionally, I hope to retain some new routines teaching students. For example, utilizing poll questions in Zoom was very enlightening for me and for students, so I’ll work those questions into future in-person classes. I also realized that some students prefer taking classes virtually, so I might build in one or two classes on the syllabus each term that are completely remote. 

In terms of helping others, something that has motivated me during the pandemic is our survey of Pitt staff. We’ve learned a lot about how people are handling the uncertainty and adapting at work. The response has been incredible, and I still get emails about the survey. People really wanted an outlet to communicate how they were feeling, even if it was via Likert-scale survey questions. Many wanted to vent and express just how hard work-life has been and continues to be, especially for staff and faculty with kids at home.

The most important thing I learned is to be more understanding and not make any assumptions about anyone’s home and work situation. Some people are working with two adults and two (or more) kids around the same dining table. Others are attempting to find workspace in a one-bedroom apartment. Others are loving the experience, becoming more productive at home or avoiding traffic and paying for parking.

The big lesson for me has been flexibility. That is something that must carryover post pandemic — leaders and supervisors must be more understanding of what people may be experiencing at home and to new ways of work whether virtually or in the office. 


Digital Divide widened, but CEC helped bridge it

Daren Ellerbee
Director of Pitt’s Community Engagement Center in Homewood

The one thing that I've learned during the pandemic is that a small shift in resources can have a profound community impact.  When the world moved its day-to-day business to the online environment, I immediately recognized that many community members would be lost inside the growing Digital Divide, the gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet, and those who don't. The pandemic has disconnected many residents from each other, especially those who were not comfortable navigating technology before COVID.

Community-based organizations in Homewood, like the Homewood Community Development Collaborative (“the Collaborative”), representing 10 local organizations, held in-person public monthly meetings before COVID. These were a valuable source of information for residents, elected officials, community leaders, and others seeking awareness about programs, projects and community-benefitting opportunities.

I relied upon those community gatherings, and I quickly recognized how much I missed them! In addition to being great places to break bread with residents (most meetings included dinner), they also provided a space to reconnect with neighbors and friends, to learn about new community projects and grassroots efforts, and provided a platform for groups to update residents about their respective activities in the community.  Meetings were also a great source of smiles, hugs and laughs!

By April 2020, the CEC assisted in organizing community groups throughout Homewood to host a community-wide virtual meeting to discuss the pandemic. This gathering proved to be beneficial and following, the Collaborative asked about partnering with the CEC to help them transition their monthly in-person meetings into a virtual environment.

Pitt's access to a Zoom webinar account that could host up to 500 attendees, in addition to community-engaged and tech-savvy students and staff who could assist with creating flyers and presentations, provided the technical capacity to a group that is 100 percent volunteer-based.

Since, we have been approached by other organizations, including the United Black Book Clubs of Pittsburgh, to support their online literacy-focused events, and the Alma Illery Medical Center to support a breast health series during Breast Cancer Awareness month.

By operationalizing, the CEC will continue to provide this level of technical support beyond the pandemic! Why? We know that the pandemic did not create the Digital Divide but exacerbated it. The pandemic has shown that the work of the center exists beyond its walls.


Socially distanced, but still focused on the goal of sustainability

Aurora Sharrard
Director of Sustainability

Aurora SharrardEarly in the global pandemic, I joined with other University staff members and Pittsburghers to share how COVID-19 may affect Pittsburgh long-term in Public Source.  One year later, it is clear that these impacts remain, with many predictions coming to fruition. COVID-19 is the emergency we are facing right now — but there are many others we face that are more evident than ever before, including food insecurity, industry crises, natural disasters, climate change and systemic racism.

Regardless, our challenges present new opportunities to adapt how we think and take action.  For example, to ensure our most vulnerable weren’t slipping through the cracks over the past year, Pitt’s basic needs team evolved their emergency assistance platforms for Pitt Pantry and Meal Scholarship Program, with more than 5,300 students responding to our Real College Survey (which the Basic Needs Committee will assess later this month).

To help the Pitt community engage in sustainability remotely, our Sustainability team ramped up virtual learning, celebrated the 50th Earth Day virtually, moved our Pitt Green Guides online, and launched a Pitt Green Home Office Challenge. For those on-campus, expanded composting, textile recycling and sustainable food options rolled out — and our Choose to Reuse program relaunched last month.

To support those commuting to campus, we began offering unlimited 30-minute Healthy Ride bike share rides. And our new Mobility Specialist is finding innovative ways to assist commuters in choosing active, shared, and low carbon solutions.

Additionally, over the past seven months, our Carbon Commitment Committee has been developing the first Pitt Climate Action Plan, charting the course to reach carbon neutrality on the Pittsburgh campus by 2037. 

How has our pandemic experience been? Socially distanced, but focused on our goal of true sustainability, which is only achieved in balancing equity, environment, and economics. The pandemic’s disruption has helped shine a light on our most critical issues — and be a catalyst for continued positive change.


The online experience wasn’t all bad and even had some benefits

Victoria Luna Brennan Grieve
School of Pharmacy assistant professor and School of Computing and Information instructor

Victoria GrieveTo call the last year a roller coaster would be quite the understatement, but as far as teaching is concerned, I believe I did the best I could given the circumstances. I made a choice at the beginning of all this that I wasn’t going to promote any kind of in-person session because I did not want to be responsible for anyone’s increased risk. This means that I could focus entirely on the online experience for my classes, and I believe that my students benefited from that focus.

We completely re-designed the experience for my class on Game Design last fall to leverage the opportunities present in online teaching. We held sessions in multiplayer games to critique the design while playing! I’m hoping to continue this into the in-person future, dedicating some sessions to being remote so that we can leverage the multiplayer online experience. My co-teacher and I have already discussed that most of the assignments we made in re-designing the class flat-out worked better than some previous assignments. The eventual re-re-design of the class to allow in-person teaching will look different from either of the past two iterations, and I’m excited at the possibilities.

Similarly, my classes in the School of Pharmacy pivoted relatively easily, although these classes couldn’t get the same total overhaul as my Game Design class. Since I already try to avoid lectures and exams, my activities and assessments translated well to remote learning. However, several of my classes relied on discussion and Socratic dialogue, which is tremendously difficult to promote via Zoom. I can’t blame anyone for having their video off during a class (goodness knows I would have done the same as a student), but it does really affect my ability to lead a group discussion. Regardless, I believe that I’ve been able to deliver the best academic experience I could, given the circumstances.