By MARTY LEVINE
Pitt has “a huge group of people working on the problem that college students will be college students” when they return in the fall, John V. Williams, director of the University’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office, told the Senate Faculty Affairs Committee meeting on July 21.
From behavioral health experts to marketing people, their aim is to control how much COVID-19 exposure students choose to risk, he said.
But the plan “is not completed yet,” said Geovette Washington, chief legal officer and executive sponsor of the Resilience Steering Committee, which oversees its development.
“If Pitt has that messaging plan, it would be good to know what that is and start broadcasting it more broadly” — even before the details are available, said committee member Pat Loughlin, faculty in the Swanson School of Engineering.
Pitt will still ask students to isolate seven days before and after arriving on campus, Williams said; screen all, and test a sample, of arriving students for COVID-19; and be prepared to quarantine possible cases and isolate “hundreds” of positive cases if needed. The University also is ready to enforce new provisions in the student code of conduct for mask wearing and social distancing, Washington said.
“The most important tools … to get the virus under control are masks, hygiene and social distancing,” Williams said. “If everyone in America were doing it, and properly, we wouldn’t need tests.”
But the U.S. is a hotspot for the disease today, he said: “In some way the challenges are not different than in the rest of American society. You see the struggle as a country … We can’t enforce this on students any more than we can enforce this on faculty,” citing not taking unnecessary risks, or even believing in the necessity of health precautions.
Scaring a 19-year-old into proper behavior by talking about the possibility of permanent disability or death won’t work, Williams said. His own college-age children have told him they know younger people are at lower risk and expect to contract COVID-19 this fall at school and “get it over with. They’re not crazy. I remind them that it’s about the persons around us” — about acting safely to keep other community members out of danger.
Although Williams expects most students to say yes to being tested upon arrival on campus, “we can’t make testing mandatory for students,” he said. Pitt’s sampling tests will thus take into account the statistical likelihood of missed cases, along with the known percentage of cases among Pitt’s large student population from Western Pennsylvania and from the state at large, as well as among smaller cohorts from the U.S. overall and from outside the country.
Testing every student would not be advisable, Williams added. “That’s going to have a lot of false positives (and) it’s going to use a lot of precious resources (when) we’re already in a testing crisis in this country, which is tragic, six months into (the pandemic).”
It might also give students a false sense of confidence, he said — that “once they get to campus, it’s a free-for-all, because we tested you.”
“What we really want to know … is it 1 percent or 5 percent or 10 percent (asymptomatic positive cases)?” If the statistical sampling estimates 10 percent COVID-19 positive cases, Pitt will delay or stop the next cohort of students from coming to campus during their staged arrival in August, Williams said.
“Faculty, staff and employees will all be tested when symptomatic,” through the UPMC MyHealth@Work Center, he added. And Pitt’s tally of COVID-19 cases across campus, will be updated regularly.
Safety in classrooms and office access
Washington noted that the student code of conduct will involve “progressive discipline (for) repeat offenders” who flout rules on mask wearing and distancing in classrooms, suggesting de-escalation strategies to change student behavior “so you won’t be put in the position of calling the police.”
Questioned about when and how Pitt may conduct contact tracing to prevent further spread of COVID-19, if faculty or staff report they are sick, Washington said the resilience committee is developing an app that employees can use daily to track their contacts. Use of the app will not be mandatory, she emphasized, but it would help with contact tracing for positive COVID-19 cases.
The app will supersede any paper forms currently in use, she noted, including forms she said were being employed by the University Library System and School of Medicine today.
“We’re not going to say you can’t come on campus if you haven’t done it,” she said of the app.
On the other hand, although deans and the provost are encouraging professors to be in classrooms where possible, “no one needs to come to campus” to teach, she said. This is especially true for older employees or those with extra health concerns.”
Questioned about how impromptu after-class meetings with students will work, Washington said: “We’ll ask (students) to physically distance. … We do have spacing set off in the classroom and (each of) you should be wearing masks.
“A lot of this is on the honor system,” she added, and may require students to be instructed to maintain the same safe distance after class as during class. “We’ll have to teach them, as we teach them so many things,” Washington said.
“We will see lots of changes over this term,” she concluded, “and we don’t want to get us back in a position where we have to shut down the University again because we haven’t planned ahead.”
Asked about continued restrictions on office access, Senate President Chris Bonneau explained that it is dependent on two factors: Facilities Management making certain the air quality will be safe in each building — which is mostly done — and each academic unit or school finishing its plans for access, including listing those faculty members eligible for access. “Most of those have not been done,” Bonneau said.
“If they don’t get this done now, like this week, we’re dramatically running out of time here,” Loughlin said. “What’s not going to work is if they say on Aug. 17, ‘OK, come on, you can test it now.’ ”
Washington said the University is working on creating employee card access to buildings “so we can limit the public out of those buildings.”
Asked whether faculty would have the chance to test classroom technology being added for the Flex@Pitt simultaneous in-class and remote teaching, Bonneau said Pitt IT informed him that installation of this equipment would start this week, with testing “soon — with available training for faculty and staff.”
Each class will have video that can be turned toward the professor, if present, or the students, for interaction, Bonneau said. The only concerns he heard from Pitt IT, he said, were about the ability of microphones to pick up audio, such as student comments, from more than 25 feet away in larger classrooms. “We’ll have to practice,” he said.
Suzanna Gribble, committee secretary and biological sciences faculty member, worried that faculty evaluations (Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching forms, or OMETs) will be affected by faculty unfamiliarity with Flex@Pitt teaching methods: “It’s four weeks out, I still don’t know what I’m doing, and my OMETs will still count.”
Bonneau said that discussions with administration concerning possible adjustments to the OMETs “is on the list of things to do after August 19th,” when the fall semester begins.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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