SPECIAL EDITION: Spring break forced Pitt’s hand on remote learning decision

Empty Cathedral of Learning commons room

The timing of Wednesday’s announcement that Pitt is moving to remote learning as of March 23 was prompted by spring break, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said at a news conference.

“We felt we had to address the question about do you bring (students) back on campus after they’ve been across the country traveling, in many cases to regions of higher risk?” he said Wednesday afternoon. “Our problem is how do you manage somebody who’s potentially exposed and isolate them, not how do you manage large numbers of potentially sick students. Once you see it that way, it was really, in our view, the only prudent way to balance the need to be protective.

“We’re actually taking a series of actions today that are designed to lower the risk of transmission on campus,” Gallagher said. “A university is a socially intensive environment. It’s kind of, in many respects, a cruise ship without the ocean.”

Pitt was part of a wave of area schools to make the move online this week, including Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Chatham, Penn State and West Virginia universities. Gallagher said Pitt has been networking with other local universities and keeping each other appraised of what each is doing. “Knowing that in Pittsburgh we’re in a tight community, what happens at one school is going to certainly be impacting the other schools as well.”

The key points to Pitt’s plan (which can be found at emergency.pitt.edu/covid-19) are:

  • No classes the week of March 16, as faculty prepares to move classes online.
  • Remote learning will begin on March 23 and continue through the end of the semester. Students will receive information from their professors on how each course will proceed.
  • Pittsburgh campus remains open and operational for students who are unable to return home. Market Central and the Perch dining halls will close, but food will be available at other Pitt facilities. “Right now, if there are students who are still on campus in our University-operated housing, we are not telling them to leave,” Gallagher said. “Many of those students are here because they couldn’t leave. Some of those include international students who actually can’t go back home. We are not telling them to leave. The campus remains open and we’re providing the full spectrum of student services for them.”
  • Effective March 11, all staff have been assigned two weeks (10 working days) of paid sick leave above and beyond accumulated time, up to the policy threshold of 120 total days.

Gallagher couldn’t promise that employee pay wouldn’t be affected. There is no discussion or intention to cut pay, however, due to modified services and activities, work hours and conditions may change.

“You can see the economic impact of this crisis unfolding around the world,” he said. “I can’t say that there won’t be any (pay cuts), but our efforts right now are to minimize it.”

When asked if Pitt’s online infrastructure could handle the surge in online courses, Gallagher said “we believe we do have the capabilities to do it technically” even though Pitt is facing an unprecedented situation. Pitt IT has provided IT resources to support remote work.

“Let me be candid: we’re entering the unknown here,” Gallagher said. “We have a teaching and learning center; we’re going to take an extra week before the classes start in this new mode to give the faculty time to prepare.”

He said his biggest concern was that not all students will have access to the kind of broadband capabilities needed, “so we’re going to have to make accommodations on a case by case basis for those students.”

“Students didn’t come to Pitt because they wanted to take online classes — this is not ideal,” he continued. “This is a balancing act between trying to maintain our mission so that our students can make progress to a degree, while we take these steps to, in essence, have sort of large-scale social distancing.”

Gallagher said that the university will work with parents and students for refunds on room and board costs.

“It’s our intention to refund room and board cost on a pro rata basis. We’re not going to try to penalize people for what’s happening here. Doing this in an orderly way is our top priority. We’ll be sending out communication to students and their families in the next days.”

No decision has been made yet about April's commencement.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294. Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905.


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