By SUSAN JONES
The task forces looking at how Pitt will operate in the fall are presenting their reports to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher today and “next week, we’ll be pivoting toward pulling things together and pulling the plan into place,” Gallagher said in an interview today.
As the process moves forward, the chancellor said that there will be more regular communication with the Pitt community, including a message going out today.
“This is not going to be a situation where we go away in some dark musty room, socially distanced from each other, and produce a plan and release it,” he said. “It’s got to be adaptive, and I think there’s going to be aspects of a planning process that are continuous. I think that even the plans that come out are going to be modified frequently.
“There’s such a desire to address the uncertainty; everyone wants to know what exactly is going to happen. The flip side is nobody wants to be in such a prescriptive straitjacket that we can’t adapt and flex and accommodate all of this in a way that doesn’t impact what we’re all trying to do.”
The pandemic is different from other crises because there is no clear-cut line of when it’s over. The threat is persistent, Gallagher said.
“What happens is that you get out of the crisis phase, not by the threat going away, but by building in the infection control into your normal operations,” he said. “It will touch everything we do. Basically, the planning is how do you run an infection control program while you’re running a university.”
He expects to release next week the University’s restrictions on what kind of research can start up. That doesn’t mean all research will resume next week, it means that those performing research have to have in place new infection control procedures dictated by the University. Once those plans are in place, each school will be allowed to authorize the return of staff and restart of research.
“That will be a lot more efficient, because at the school level they just have a much better awareness of exactly what they’re doing and what the research involves,” Gallagher said.
The University’s infection control plan will have to be flexible to adjust as the threat level goes up or down, and Pitt will tap into its deep resources of medical, epidemiological and occupational health knowledge to create a medical advisory board, “that will help us distill all of the confusing and sometimes not entirely consistent advice we’re all hearing.”
Mitigation efforts that we’ve all become familiar with — social distancing, personal protective equipment, disinfection — will affect many different operations at Pitt. “What we’re trying to do is maximize our mission and not just go back to the way it was,” Gallagher said.
Part of what that means is the University will continue to try to keep campus as sparsely populated as possible, “so jobs that don’t require a physical presence, we will continue to maximize the amount of work from home that’s consistent with doing our work,” he said.
Appropriate protective equipment will be provided to Pitt employees who are working on campus, but that will vary depending on the job. Those in single offices may only require cloth masks, while those working in the dental clinic will need much more.
It also means, Gallagher said, that Pitt won’t be able to use its buildings in the same way and services might be delivered in different ways.
For instance, the working group on teaching is looking at approaches that are less dependent on whether somebody’s in a classroom, “because we can’t count on that being a requirement,” Gallagher said. “People may be in isolation. They may be under stay at home orders, they may have a health condition. Whatever it is, we don’t want to have to abandon our teaching if suddenly our classrooms can’t be used the way we want.”
That doesn’t mean in-person classes won’t take place, but by not depending on it, “we’re more robust,” he said. Some classrooms also will not be usable, such as small studios and practice rooms.
“I think we’ll have a lot of good starting guidance for the faculty probably in the next week or two. It’ll get more detailed as we go along,” he said. “The central guidance will be fairly general purpose and then schools will have the latitude to really pick that up and fine tune it, because teaching nurses and doctors is going to look different from teaching economists and physicists.”
The working groups also are looking at making sure the “University-owned housing program can be configured and managed in such a way that ideally would be independent of the intensity of the outbreak around us,” he said.
Details about what housing will look like in the fall are still weeks away, Gallagher said, but it won’t look like last year.
The University also has to consider prevention and containment of any future outbreak of COVID-19 on campus.
That will include risk identification, through symptoms, temperature or testing or some combination, tracking and isolation. The efforts will include identifying potential sources of infection and trying to isolate them, and taking steps to isolate and protect individuals who are at risk, either because of their medical history or because of their jobs.
Then, he said, “Making sure people have access to get the absolute best health care is another responsibility we have. … We are really fortunate here that we’ve got one of the top medical systems in the whole country. We want to make sure that access to that has as few barriers as possible.”
Preparing and educating
Gallagher said there would be training for supervisors on how to deal with employees working from home and how to protect people that have to work on campus. Supervisors also will learn about accommodation programs, so that those who are at higher risk can be given a combination of in-person and at-home work.
They’ll also be sharing information about testing, tracing and modifying building and office configurations.
Once a general plan is released for infection control and University operations, then each activity area, such as teaching, research, housing, food and athletics, will have to outline the specifics.
“To the extent possible, each of those activities will share as much of the common program as possible and just fine tune the parts that are specific to that activity area,” Gallagher said. “If you can pick an approach that doesn’t force you to change everything when the risk changes, that’s a good approach, because it just makes you more resilient.”
It has become clear that the virus is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, he said, and students “can’t put their lives on hold indefinitely until this goes away.” And research, both that which may hold the answers to the pandemic and other projects, “can’t sit there abandoned until we come back.”
“The only choice we have is to adapt to include a new kind of safety program. … How do we protect each other by lowering the risk of infection and still do what we’re doing. And it’s that integration of the two that’s really the challenge,” Gallagher said. “I think it’s going to change some aspects of how we do what we do at the University, but it’s not going to change our fundamental purpose as a University.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
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