By DONOVAN HARRELL
Provost Ann Cudd and Swanson School of Engineering Dean Jimmy Martin are focused on doing more than just “restarting” campus operations this fall.
The Task Force on Reimagining Pitt Education, which Cudd and Martin co-chair, is one of the three University task forces focused on planning and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the other two being the Research Restart and Employees & Operations task forces.
Cudd said an important point to note is that the task force uses the word “reimagining” as opposed to “restarting” because Pitt never truly closed in the first place.
“We didn’t stop. We didn’t close. We did have to change the way we were doing things. And because of these changes, we’ve learned new things and what we can do with what we’ve learned to create a better future.” Cudd said.
Martin said that although it can seem like the goals may be to focus on “pandemic-proofing” the University so it can resume something similar to normal operations, it is working on much more.
“It’s also to look at what our future looks like if we continue on this trajectory,” Martin said. “We have been pushed to evolve and innovate. We don’t want to go back to where we were, we want to take the best elements of that and continue along that trajectory.”
But Cudd said she was completely aware that these past few months have been extremely difficult on the Pitt community, and the uncertainty surrounding Pitt’s future has been stressful for them.
“Everybody’s anxious,” Cudd said. “They need to plan their own lives and they need to plan how they’re going to teach and all of those things.”
The Reimaging Education Task Force and its various working groups are focused on public safety first and foremost, Cudd said, and are consulting scientists, health experts, government agencies and more to create comprehensive recommendations that will be given to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher on May 29.
The committee relies on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College Health Association and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The committees use a variety of models to inform their decision, one of which is the HyFlex Model, Cudd said.
Cudd said Martin’s extensive experience as an engineer in managing and planning disaster recovery makes him an excellent co-chair for the committee with a unique perspective. So far, Martin has informed task force members on risks, the nature of infections, and how they spread.
Throughout much of his career, Martin has focused on disaster engineering. He’s consulted and worked for multiple government organizations including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.
“Not only does he think about the details like an engineer in a very systematic way, but he also has a real mindset for how to bring together people and lead, so he’s been great to work with,” Cudd said.
Cudd said she’s been “amazingly proud” of the Pitt community’s ability to quickly adjust to the switch to remote learning and she’s confident Pitt can “raise our game even further” in the future.
The working groups have to remain flexible since information about the pandemic is constantly evolving, which calls for multiple strategies and plans that can account for a variety of unexpected conditions, Martin said.
“Because uncertainty is the key,” Martin said. “We simply just don’t know. This is unprecedented. I want to emphasize that even though we have plans and contingencies and scenarios, the most important thing is that we’re building the networks and knowledge of how to work together to identify the trigger points, the ‘switches’ that allow us to shift between the scenarios.”
No final plans or strategies have been made yet because it’s still very early in the response process, Cudd said, but a few ideas are being tossed around. In the coming weeks, once Gallagher and his team have had time to review the task forces’ reports, Pitt will begin making more concrete announcements.
“Of course, ideally, we will be teaching students face to face (in the fall 2020 semester),” Cudd said. “I think everybody’s ideal is that. But we’re planning for how could that be possible and under what conditions would that be possible — what the triggering conditions, as they say, would be for that.”
Some of the specific ideas on the table so far, she said, include testing, providing for quarantine or self-isolation, and requiring Pitt faculty, staff and students to wear masks on campus.
The task forces also have relied on surveys of faculty, staff and students and their parents to gather a broad range of input on Pitt’s sudden transition to remote learning — mostly to figure out what worked and what could be improved.
Cudd said the Health and Housing working group, which Martin co-chairs, works with several students on what would motivate students to follow new campus building and housing guidelines.
But compliance from the entire Pitt community will be a major component of on-campus operations in the fall semester, both Cudd and Martin said.
“We can’t enforce our way into compliance,” Cudd said. “What we have to do is create a sense of care and responsibility for each other. My mask protects you and your mask protects me.”
Martin agrees, adding that improvement relies on the actions of the community.
“The objective is not to minimize the number of sick people,” Martin said. “The idea is to increase the number of healthy people on campus. And that can be done. Simply by individual behavior.”
Martin sees an opportunity for Pitt to stand out as a leading institution with innovative strategies to help combat the spread of the virus. He said it’s important that people keep in mind that it’s not inevitable that the virus will spread to everyone.
“It can be mitigated through individual behavior, and that is an opportunity for us,” Martin said. “Universities have always meant so much to the advancement of cities and towns and states and society. This is an opportunity for the University to be an instrument of healing.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
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