Unclear when fall classes will move in person, Pitt officials say


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

The Cathedral of Learning watches over an empty Pitt campus.

By Jon Moss, Editor-in-Chief

Pitt officials would not commit on Thursday to a specific or estimated date for when fall classes will move from online only to in person, as the first wave of students prepares to move into on-campus housing in 11 days and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the country. The fall semester will still begin remotely on Aug. 19, but the University previously said classes would transition to in-person instruction on Aug. 24.

In-person instruction can only begin once Pitt moves into the lowest, Guarded Risk posture of its three-tiered reopening system. The Oakland campus is currently in the middling Elevated Risk posture, which requires nearly all classes to be online-only.

Dr. John Williams, the head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office, said medical experts look at data on campus, City and county conditions to evaluate the local state of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the decision to move the Oakland campus to the Guarded Risk posture is revisited “at least weekly.”

“We can’t really provide a definite date this far in advance without knowing what all of these data variables are going to do,” Williams said.

Pitt has said it will introduce Flex@Pitt, a new teaching model, to allow students to experience classes “in person, remotely, synchronously or asynchronously,” and not require faculty to teach in person. It has also asked all students to shelter-in-place for seven days before and after arriving on campus, planned testing of students to monitor the virus’ spread, required students, faculty and staff to complete COVID-19 training and imposed strict penalties for health guidelines violations.

Matthew Sterne, the vice chancellor for business services, said Pitt is setting aside 179 isolation beds for students who have either a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection, with the ability to add 20 more. These students will receive care from a dedicated team, who will coordinate food, medical care, and other needs, he said.

Sterne also said the University will focus on to-go dining options for the fall, due the county health department’s current order limiting in-person dining facilities to 25% of their usual capacity. Dining plans announced earlier this month allow students to use some meal passes at any dining location, which Sterne said will hopefully thin out crowds at the two campus dining halls, Market Central and The Perch.

According to Sterne, Pitt will also operate a dining facility out of the Residence Inn Pittsburgh University/Medical Center on Bigelow Boulevard, one of the hotels where first-year students will live this fall.

The quick succession of new policies arrive as some community members doubt whether the safeguards are sufficient, and increasing numbers of universities and school districts around the country have decided in-person instruction is not worth the risk. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in mid-July that he, too, was concerned about the state of the country at this point in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re watching the pandemic kind of move towards what a lot of us consider the worst-case scenario,” Gallagher said at the time. “It’s moving in the wrong direction, it’s widespread, it’s happening in our region and it’s causing a lot of uncertainty.”

Contributing reporting by Mary Rose O’Donnell.