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In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, planning for the fall semester is underway. Provost Ann Cudd, a co-chair of Task Force on Reimagining Pitt Education, said she is hopeful for a fall semester on campus.
“I remain optimistic that we will be on campus,” Cudd said. “I commit that we are working as hard as we can to find a way or multiple ways of operating so that we can be on campus.”
Cudd leads the task force with James Martin II, the U.S. Steel dean of the Swanson School of Engineering, and the task force is leading the effort on determining what a Pitt education will look like this fall. This follows part of the spring semester and the entire summer semester taking place online.
Cudd said the task force will deliver a report to the chancellor on May 29 with recommendations based on about three different pandemic scenarios provided by Pitt’s Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management. Cudd declined to elaborate on the specific scenarios, but said they were designed by public health officials at the University’s Emergency Operations Center. She said recommendations tailored to each situation will help guide Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s early July decision about the fall semester.
“We want to create a very flexible plan that can accommodate a variety of scenarios depending on what the pandemic provides,” Cudd said. “The goal is to be as open as possible and to serve students as fully as we can.”
Martin echoed the importance of flexibility under current conditions.
“In highly complex environments, this energy is best directed toward the team and network, and its ability to shift dynamically between various scenarios,” Martin said.
The task force is directed by a 20-person executive committee, and contains five working groups, each focused on different aspects of campus life. The executive committee is responsible for guiding the working groups and authoring the final document for Gallagher. The panel also has three scientific advisers to provide counsel. Students do not sit on the task force’s executive committee, but are represented on each of the working groups.
At the same time, two other task forces are examining other aspects of the University. One is formulating options on how to restart research, and the other is drawing up recommendations on how to best support employees and run on-campus operations.
Cudd said while there are no students on the executive committee, she believes their opinions will be heard through the working groups. Chris Bonneau — the president of the University Senate, which represents faculty — was selected for the task force’s executive committee. Community members can also submit feedback to the task forces online. Cudd said she did not include more people in the task force because she didn’t want the groups to be too large.
“The executive committee is really just coordinating. I would say the main work is being done by the working groups and there are students on each of them,” Cudd said. “We didn’t want the groups to be so large they couldn’t make decisions.”
She added that the task force will consider opinions offered online, as well as student surveys Pitt is conducting.
“We are getting lots of input from students and faculty,” Cudd said. “We’re doing surveys and we also have an open online forum for anyone that wants to bring in any ideas. We’ll read them and talk about them.”
Student Government Board President Eric Macadangdang is serving on the out-of-the-classrooms working group. Macadangdang said he is grateful to bring a student voice to the task force.
“I’m happy to speak from a student perspective on how we can plan for the future,” Macadangdang said. “It’s important to have a student perspective on these issues.”
When asked if he thinks there should be more student representatives on the task force, Macadandang did not answer directly, but said he is happy to be included in a working group.
“I don’t think I’m one to answer that. I’m just a part of the larger task force,” Macadangdang said. “I was asked to serve on one of the working groups and I’m more than happy to be on that.”
The task force has focused on gathering information from various public health and University officials thus far and is transitioning to making recommendations, according to Bonneau.
“The working groups have started gathering info as far as seeing what other schools are doing and what Pitt’s capacity is for doing things. We’ve also had presentations and reports from epidemiologists laying out the basics of the disease,” Bonneau said. “We were in the fact-finding stage and now we’re starting to move to the recommendation phase.”
Bonneau said combining recommendations from various working groups is difficult because the decisions of one group often have effects on other groups.
“It’s really hard, there’s no single simple answer. Everything will have trade-offs,” Bonneau said. “What we decide to do with graduate and undergraduate education is partly determined by what we can do with housing and classroom space.”
Bonneau added that the task force does not factor in tuition and other University revenue when planning. He said this is important so public health isn’t compromised.
“We don’t deal with any budgets. It’s based on public safety and delivering a quality product,” Bonneau said. “I think this is a good thing, because we don’t want decisions to be made on finances that could jeopardize public safety.”
Cudd said a “driver” for many task force decisions has to do with housing and how many students can live on campus.
“The housing and health [working group] is very busy right now determining how dense our housing can be, what kind of cleaning and preparations we need, what kind of testing might be needed and how to isolate students who test positive,” Cudd said.
Danielle Obisie-Orlu — the president of the Resident Student Association, which represents students in residence halls — said she hopes the task force considers students’ financial situation when discussing housing.
“The financial burden that students and their families will face, when it comes to on-campus housing, cannot be equated to previous years and fees,” Obisie-Orlu, a rising sophomore political science and international and area studies double major, said. “Housing fees need to reflect the reality we are living and I am confident that the task force will consider this.”
Obisie-Orlu said while RSA wasn’t included in the task force, other officials, such as Steve Anderson, an associate dean of students and director of the Office of Residence Life, will represent students’ best interests.
“I’m a big believer in student representation, especially in matters that directly impact the lives of students on and off campus,” Obisie-Orlu said. “Residence life is incredibly multifaceted and RSA will always have a seat at the table in some shape or form.”
Despite intense planning, Cudd said many of the University’s final decisions will be left to guidelines and laws from federal, state and local authorities. For example, Cudd said the task force recently learned that the state Department of Education will not permit face-to-face instruction if Allegheny County is in either the red or yellow phase of reopening.
“The state and local and even federal government [are] really important [players] in determining what conditions we can operate,” Cudd said.
Allegheny County will move from the red phase into the yellow — or “aggressive mitigation” — phase of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 pandemic mitigation strategy on May 15, Gov. Tom Wolf announced last Friday. Pitt said it will issue its own guidance about how operations will change in the yellow phase, while still keeping Pitt community members safe.
But Bonneau said despite the uncertainty from the pandemic, advance planning will give Pitt flexibility come fall.
“We don’t want it to be like the spring where we transitioned in one week,” Bonneau said. “By having everything on the table, we can preserve maximum flexibility, which is important with a changing pandemic.”
Community members can submit feedback to the reopening task forces online.