State releases college reopening guidance

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Contributing Editor

The Pa. Department of Education released preliminary guidance for reopening colleges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, permitting colleges in yellow-designated counties to resume limited in-person instruction and other operations beginning Friday.

Schools looking to resume any in-person operations, regardless of its county’s reopening phase, must create a health and safety plan and make it available to the public, students, faculty and staff before resuming in-person operations.

According to the guidance, plans should have strategies for safely resuming in-person instruction, monitoring the health of the campus community, mitigating the spread of the virus and communicating timely information to students, faculty and staff. Plans also must address hygiene practices, how social distancing can be implemented in campus facilities and attendance requirements for students, faculty and staff and those at high risk of COVID-19.

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said the University will analyze the guidance as it continues to prepare plans for the fall semester.

“We are reviewing this new guidance as we continue our planning work, which is grounded in our determination to be able to continue fulfilling our mission as circumstances evolve — not just in the next few months, but in the next few years,” Zwick said.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher has said Pitt will announce early plans for the fall to faculty and staff early this month, with more complete plans to be released in early July.

The state guidance made many recommendations as to how colleges can reopen while maintaining a safe environment for community members. Universities should limit appointments with student service offices, prohibit non-instructional gatherings of more than 25 people in the yellow phase and 250 in the green phase and reduce seating in large public areas on campus, including cafeterias and libraries.

Schools should also regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and face coverings being worn in all public shared spaces on campus, the guidance said. Pitt officials have said one plan they are considering is to distribute one mask to employees, and two to students, as well as mandate their usage on campus.

The guidance also said students, faculty and staff should maintain social distance of at least 6 feet apart when possible and student groups are recommended to host remote group events, gatherings and meetings. Students living in residence halls are recommended to wear face coverings in shared spaces and avoid communal areas. Residence halls should also limit visitors and non-essential staff entering the buildings. The state also recommends reserving housing to quarantine students exposed to COVID-19 as well as confirmed cases.

Zwick said he did not have immediate answers to specific questions, but said this guidance will be a part of Pitt’s reopening process.

“The questions raised are all being considered as part of that process, and we anticipate having initial answers to these and many others in the near future,” Zwick said. “The outcome will not be a one-size-fits-all response, but a series of flexible responses that allow us to take steps to help keep our community as safe as possible and live out our mission in a changing situation.”