Editorial | Fall instruction must be entirely remote

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rescinded previous guidelines for international students Tuesday, stating that these students would not face deportation if their classes are held entirely online. This reversal also means that Pitt can no longer justify bringing students back to campus.

Considering that coronavirus cases are skyrocketing nationally and locally, there is no way to return to in-person instruction this fall without risking lives. More and more universities are beginning to admit this, as coronavirus cases in the United States soar and early campus outbreaks among even small groups of students emerge. These early outbreaks indicate that when universities reopen at large, outbreaks will be widespread and difficult to contain. Reopening campuses means that some students and faculty will die. There’s simply no way to justify this fiscally — or educationally.

There’s widespread concern about the quality of online education, and it’s true that many factors that make a typical classroom setting beneficial are lost without in-person instruction. Few are trying to argue otherwise. The point isn’t that online instruction can be the same as face-to-face instruction — the point is that we’re in the midst of a raging pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and is only accelerating in the United States. Pitt needs to move classes entirely online now, for the sake of public health, and so that instructors have the space and time to plan a class for students that takes full advantage of the online setting.

The University of Southern California reversed its reopening plan earlier this month, telling students to stay home and take classes online. West Chester University, located near Philadelphia, announced Sunday that its classes would be remote in the fall. It is the first public Pennsylvania school to make this call. As of last Thursday, Pitt currently has 29 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with only a few athletes and coaches being on campus. Pitt still plans to welcome students back to campus in masses, beginning mid-August.

Administration is working on implementing the new Flex@Pitt teaching model, which does not require faculty to physically teach in classrooms, but still requires teachers to provide a “classroom experience” for students. This means faculty members must plan a class that can run both remotely and in the classroom. If a faculty member does not wish to be in the classroom, Provost Ann Cudd said, graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants, faculty colleagues or staff members should be present in the classroom.

But if Pitt really wants to ensure the best and safest possible education for students during this time, the most logical option would be to hold courses online and give instructors the chance to plan an interactive and engaging online course — rather than asking the instructor to bend over backwards and plan a whole slew of adaptable course scenarios. It’s quality of education over quantity of options.

We understand that Pitt will lose money if it decides to go online. But we also understand that holding classes online will save the lives of students, yes, but also instructors and community members, too. Being part of the Pitt community means interacting with our City community. It means, for many, taking public transportation to campus and risking the spread of the virus to older people who are far more at risk. But even perfectly healthy people are becoming critically ill and dying. We also don’t know what the long term effects of COVID-19 are. There is mounting evidence of young people who contracted COVID-19, and did not get very sick, dying of strokes.

We are asking Pitt to do not what is easy, but what is right.