By SUSAN JONES
Pitt’s Oakland campus will remain in the Elevated Risk status on Sept. 14 — the day Provost Ann Cudd said in August would be the earliest start for in-person classes — but the guidelines for what that means will allow for more in-person instruction, according to emails Sept. 9 and 10 from Cudd.
At the beginning of the semester, Pitt said at the Elevated Risk level, faculty and staff are still encouraged to work from home wherever possible, gatherings are capped at 25 people and instruction is done primarily virtually.
The revised policy on instruction at the Elevated level says: “An in-person engagement option can also be provided when there is a definable benefit to in-person instruction and the dean or regional campus president or their designee grants permission via teaching implementation plans.”
The idea of “definable benefit” was vigorously debated at the Sept. 9 Faculty Assembly meeting, minutes after Cudd’s email to faculty was released. In the email, she said that, “The words ‘definable benefit’ may be broadly construed to include providing an opportunity for students to see one another and study together in the same classroom or allowing the students to see the room and their instructors in person, among others.”
Senate President Chris Bonneau said his interpretation of the revised policy is, “If you wish to teach in person, face to face, knowing that you’re also going to have the asynchronous component and everything else that is part of it, … you can make that choice.”
Faculty Assembly member Tyler Bickford, an assistant professor in the English department, said he worries that, “This seems to create a situation where faculty will now be the targets of students’ frustration, making it an individual choice for each faculty, instead of a University-wide public health decision.”
Bonneau said he had the same concern, even though students will be made aware that Pitt’s operating status is not changing on Sept. 14.
“If you or anyone else you know is getting pushback from students complaining that you are exercising your right to teach remotely, I need to know about that,” he said. “Because that's something that we need to address quickly and decisively for everybody.”
Student Government Board President Eric Macadangdang said the provost’s messages left him “a little confused and concerned.”
“Our numbers of cases are going in the wrong direction, and the CMRO (COVID-19 Medical Response Office) was pretty explicit in saying that this was largely due to noncompliance,” he said. “To create a sense that we can start being a little more ‘relaxed’ with instruction, I think gives off the wrong impression to how we need to act for the coming weeks. Right now should be a time to be a little more restrictive and direct with our practices, policies and expectations.”
Now the medical response office has advised that in-person classes can safely take place at the Elevated posture.
One stumbling block for in-person classes has been the 25-person limit from the state and county on inside gathering spaces. In an email Sept. 10 to faculty, staff and students, Cudd said the state’s guidance exempts classroom settings used for educational instruction from indoor gathering limitations.
Pitt’s Shared Spaces health and safety guidelines document from the COVID-19 Medical Response Office now says: “In-person instruction that adheres to proper physical distancing (6 feet) is permitted. If a classroom cannot accommodate distancing, additional steps must be taken in order to comply, such as: moving to a larger space, staggering attendance, or conducting the course virtually.”
The Building Safety Concierges are already at work making sure only members of the Pitt community enter campus buildings and barring anyone who doesn’t wear a mask. The University says 100 volunteers have registered for shifts as concierges and they will be working closely with the student workers and Landmark event staff that have been hired.
The Flex@Pitt model that the University has adopted allows both students and faculty to be either in the classroom or remote, and to learn synchronously or asynchronously. Special equipment from Radiant Technologies has been installed in most registrar-controlled classrooms that allow faculty who are in the classroom to interact with those who are in person and remote. One drawback for faculty who remain remote, according to some faculty who got a preview of the equipment in August, is that they can’t see the students who are in the classroom unless they all sign onto a Zoom meeting as well.
The University says 160 registrar-controlled learning spaces are equipped with Radiant equipment. Seventeen other classrooms controlled by the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Dental Medicine, the School of Computing and Information and the Katz Graduate School of Business are also equipped.
Each school has developed their own systems for identifying which classes should be in-person. The Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences requires faculty members to submit an exemption form to the associate deans of either undergraduate or graduate studies for review and approval.
The Swanson School of Engineering has been working with faculty all summer to determine if they wanted or needed to teach in person, Dean Jimmy Martin said. “One of the first tasks in the spring was to engage our students via personal interviews, as well as conduct surveys of undergraduate and graduate students. This gave us first-hand knowledge of how to best engage our students and what adjustments would need to be made for the fall. We conducted similar inquiries over the summer months, allowing us to continue to evolve and get smarter about what works, and what doesn't.”
The Swanson School of Engineering already had some equipment in place to adapt to remote learning, said Mary Besterfield-Sacre, associate dean for Academic Affairs. “We started with Flex@Pitt in nearly 60 sections of undergraduate labs on August 31, followed by some Flex@Pitt in-person options for graduate students on September 7. Aside from minor issues, such as tech glitches and reminders of maintaining social distancing, the classes have gone well. They have also provided us with a dress rehearsal and punch list to ensure all of our preparations are in place and optimal for Flex@Pitt for undergraduate classes on Monday.”
Lorraine Denman, a senior lecturer in Italian language, said she is still concerned about who would start the technology in the classroom if students want to be there, but the faculty member remains remote. She said she feels poorly trained on the Radiant equipment, particularly if students want to be in the classroom on Sept. 14.
Bonneau said he has already told his students that he will not be in the classroom, even if the University moves to the Guarded status. “It’s taken me three weeks to figure out how to do my class remotely, and I think I've kind of figured it out now,” he said. “For me to try and do it again, I'm not starting over.”
He acknowledged that some faculty members do want to be back in the classroom, and “we want to support the people who want to do that, while making sure that individuals are not penalized for not making that choice.”
Bonneau advised faculty to communicate to their students what they plan to do and what they recommend students do, based on best pedagogical practices. Then, he said, whether students are in the classroom or not is “out of our hands.”
Bickford said he was glad the University didn’t rush into the Guarded status at the beginning of the semester, even though that was the direction everything seemed to be moving. But when the public health situation changed, the COVID-19 Medical Response Office “stuck to its guns,” he said, and kept the Oakland campus at the Elevated status.
“I am worried that this decision is being made based on considerations about people's desire to be in the classroom, and the framework that we created that was supposed to be trusted is being changed in midstream,” he said. “As someone who doesn't have public health training and kind of has to trust that expertise, now I feel like it's all just sort of back on us.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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