Exclusive: On eve of move-in, Gallagher asks for flexibility during historic semester


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher at the February meeting of the board of trustees.

By Jon Moss, Editor-in-Chief

As the first round of Pitt students prepares to move into on-campus housing Tuesday in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said he remains concerned about the upcoming semester, but has worked to reduce risk wherever possible.

“I’m worried, too. We were all hoping for more favorable conditions,” Gallagher said in an exclusive Friday interview. “What we’ve tried to do is have the University do things to try to lower the risk and make it as acceptable a risk level as possible, while at the same time giving students and their families as much as latitude to make choices that are right for them.”

After roughly five months of planning for the fall semester, the University is putting the finishing touches on its new Flex@Pitt teaching model, which will allow students to experience classes “in person, remotely, synchronously or asynchronously.” Students and faculty are not required to come to campus, but faculty are required to provide a “classroom experience” if classes go in person, leading to ethical dilemmas about who may ultimately be in classrooms.

Although the University initially said in-person class would begin Aug. 24, the doctor leading Pitt’s COVID-19 response would not commit to when the majority of classes would move in person, leaving them online for the time being. Increasing numbers of colleges and school districts around the nation are going fully online for the fall, deciding in-person instruction is not worth the risk. Pittsburgh public schools will hold the first nine weeks of school online only. 

Gallagher said a decision to move classes fully online for the semester is “irreversible,” and instead opted to manage COVID-19’s “highly variable” risk by adapting to the situation as it evolves.

“I can’t say what the whole semester’s going to look like because I don’t have any more information than the medical professionals do,” Gallagher said. “What we’re going to do is follow their advice and what’s happening at the moment. If the medical team is saying they can’t say yet, then we can’t say yet.”

Gallagher added that in-person classes are not out of the question, if health conditions are appropriate and protective measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing are followed.

“There’s no reason to believe that can’t be done safely,” Gallagher said. “I think it is entirely plausible there will be in-person classes under the circumstances of our resiliency plan.”

Pitt has implemented a variety of new policies due to the pandemic. All students are asked to shelter-in-place for seven days before and after arriving in Oakland, though officials have said that Pitt will not track whether or not students have completed the shelter-in-place. Pitt has also planned testing of students to monitor the virus’ spread, required students, faculty and staff to complete COVID-19 training and imposed strict penalties for violations of health guidelines.

The quick succession of new policies arrive as some community members question whether the safeguards are sufficient, and whether community members are fully aware of the details of the fall plans.

Eric Macadangdang, the president of Student Government Board, said the University’s emails “missed the shot” on communicating expectations to students.

“They set the tone that we are returning to campus, and we are returning to the University,” Macadangdang, a senior, said. “At the end of the day, the University is going to be held accountable and they should be held responsible for how this semester turns out.”

Chris Bonneau, the president of the University Senate, said there has to be accountability for all involved in reopening Pitt, from students to top administrators.

“Any attempt to blame students or anyone else — there has to be accountability for everybody.,” Bonneau said. “There has to be accountability for students to do what they are supposed to do, but there’s accountability to the senior leadership team, too.”

But Gallagher said the University has clearly posted its health guidance for the fall, and it is on students to follow the new rules.

“If people are going to not take responsibility, it’s really endangering others,” Gallagher said. “This idea that somehow students are unable to follow guidance is something I just… will they or won’t they is going to be their choice.”

Gallagher added that the University has tried to avoid creating a stigma around reporting possible violations, noting that public health guidance is “real stuff” that impacts the community.

“The idea isn’t here to punish anyone or shame people, it’s designed to protect everybody,” Gallagher said.

Pitt’s planning process for the fall is one that has evolved and grown throughout the summer.

Leading up to April’s first-ever online commencement ceremony, the chancellor said Pitt was trying to figure out what the “new normal” would be for the fall, and was interested in exploring a “hybrid” model. The University then established three task forces in May to plan for the fall, leading to the creation of Flex@Pitt. It also led to a three-tiered reopening system, which closely mirrors the state’s red-yellow-green reopening phases.

There were some bumps in the planning process. Faculty declared a “failure” of shared governance when an “inadvertent” email meant first-year students were the first to hear about the new fall semester schedule, leapfrogging returning students, faculty and staff. Students cried foul and argued there was initially not enough student representation on the planning task forces, and again when there were initially no students on the committee implementing fall reopening plans.

Macadangdang, whose campaign platform included more forceful student advocacy to the administration, said it was frustrating he has had to constantly pressure top officials to include students in the planning effort. He pointed to a May editorial from The Pitt News Editorial Board urging more student representation as an example of actions that should not need to be taken.

“It really shouldn’t have to come and it shouldn’t be incumbent on a student newspaper and it shouldn’t be incumbent on myself to nag the administration to do what I think is necessary, which is fairer representation,” Macadangdang said.

Macadangdang added that in the case of the committee implementing fall reopening plans, on which he now sits, he was “baffled” that some of the items discussed previously had no student input.

“I think that if they continued to have no students in on that conversation, we would be even worse off in terms of communicating effectively, and making sure that students were more well aware of what this fall semester meant,” Macadangdang said. “For me, it’s a constant frustration.”

Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said the University encourages students to make their voices heard, and values collaborating with students on important matters that shape the Pitt community.

“The University works with students, including our elected student leaders, on major university planning efforts to generate ideas, solicit input and gather feedback,” Zwick said.

Gallagher asked the community in May to not measure representation by who is sitting on every planning committee, adding that there is “simply no way to put everybody at the University on all the steering committees” and have all plans written in a timely manner.

As the planning continued and the fall semester neared, the pandemic began to significantly impact Allegheny County. After months of limited cases while under a stay-at-home order and during initial reopening, the county began to see record breaking caseloads in late June and early July, a few weeks after bars reopened. The county announced new restrictions for bars and restaurants, where officials believed the virus was spreading.

Despite the uptick in cases, Pitt continued to push forward with planning. Gallagher established an advisory group of health professionals who would counsel him. The University also created a medical response office, to run testing and contact tracing programs, as well as isolation and quarantine protocols. Gallagher said in mid-July that although he was confident in Pitt’s planning, he was worried about the state of the pandemic.

“We are taking the safety very seriously, but in the face of a really dynamic environment,” Gallagher said in mid-July. “We’re watching the pandemic kind of move towards what a lot of us consider the worst-case scenario — it’s moving in the wrong direction, it’s widespread, it’s happening in our region and it’s causing a lot of uncertainty.’’

Gallagher said Friday that the University community will ultimately need to wait and see how the fall semester will turn out.

“It’s too early to declare what the whole semester will look like,” Gallagher said. “You kind of have to go with what the pandemic is letting you do.”