Pitt adds remote option for first two weeks of fall classes, in ‘unexpected departure’ from intended plans

The+Cathedral+of+Learning+and+William+Pitt+Union+on+campus.

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

The Cathedral of Learning and William Pitt Union on campus.

By Natalie Frank, Rebecca Johnson, and Jon Moss

Students will have the option of attending certain classes either remotely or in person for the first two weeks of the fall semester, Pitt announced Friday. Administrators described it as a “prudent path” due to concerns over the COVID-19 infection rate in Allegheny County and transmissibility of the Delta variant.

The announcement — which comes just a week before the semester begins, and the day after housing carts began to rumble across campus for the first official day of move-in — said the additional two weeks will help Pitt develop “a more complete picture of vaccination status and the virus in our community.” It added that the extra time would also allow the University to determine whether any revisions are necessary to health rules. All classes will be fully in person beginning on Monday, Sept. 13, the announcement said.

Administrators said Welcome Week, which was already a mix of online and in-person events, as well as other outside-the-classroom student activities, will continue as planned.

According to the announcement, instructors can deliver classes from a location of their choice for the first two weeks of the semester, which could be the assigned classroom or somewhere else. Campus spaces — including all classrooms and libraries — will remain open to all University community members.

Select classes will not be available remotely, including all field placements, practicum experiences, lab classes and research labs. Remote access will not be available to graduate and professional programs whose students generally do not take classes outside their program, unless the dean for that program’s school chooses to allow for that type of access. Deans will communicate separately with their graduate and professional programs if remote access will be available, the announcement said.

The announcement arrives as the COVID-19 Delta variant has taken hold as the predominant strain of the virus currently in the United States. It is nearly twice as contagious as previous variants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has led to overflowing hospitals in largely unvaccinated regions of the country. But according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit which compiles health policy information, so-called “breakthrough” infections among people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are extremely rare. Based on state data analyzed by KFF, the breakthrough case rate is well below 1%, hospitalization rate ranged from effectively zero to 1% and the death rate was effectively zero.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in March that the University was planning for on-campus, in-person instruction for the majority of classes, as well as “the full range” of on-campus living and activities, for the fall. Most classes took place remotely for the vast majority of last academic year, though some classes moved in person for select weeks when Pitt officials said virus prevalence had decreased.

Pitt’s current health guidelines state that all students, faculty and staff, regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks indoors, unless in “your enclosed private office or dwelling.” Individuals who are not fully vaccinated or live with someone who is immunocompromised, must wear masks both indoors and outdoors, if unable to social distance.

Community members who do not provide proof of vaccinations are required to participate in regular COVID-19 testing, and everyone is recommended to get tested if exposed and experiencing symptoms. Pitt officials said Wednesday that roughly half of students and employees have submitted documentation that they are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Provost Ann Cudd said in the announcement that while this new plan is an “unexpected departure” from what the University outlined last spring, it will hopefully make fully in-person classes possible “in the near future.”

Delta has shown us that different temporary strategies are necessary, and I want to thank you again for your ongoing and outstanding efforts — and incredible and continued resilience,” Cudd said. “Without question, this will be a year in which we will once again need grace, flexibility and kindness to do our collective best.”

Robin Kear, president of the University Senate, said she thinks giving a two-week remote option “makes sense” given the spread of the Delta variant and some faculty members’ concerns about returning to a physical classroom. 

She added that while a week isn’t a lot of time to make changes to a syllabus before the start of classes, “we have been here before.” She said the Senate will continue to advocate for flexibility for instructors.

“We have been through many different operating postures,” Kear said. “I think that we are slightly better at adapting to all these changes than we might have been before the pandemic, but … it’s not a ton of time. But I think that Delta has changed rapidly and the county transmission has changed rapidly.”

Harshitha Ramanan, president of Student Government Board, said she thinks the remote option is good for students who were used to the past year of online school.

“I think having a virtual option for the first two weeks will allow for students who have gotten used to the virtual option to slowly venture back into in person learning.” Ramanan said. 

Ramanan said while the trajectory of the pandemic is still unknown, Pitt allowing more remote options is not completely out of the picture.

“There may continue being a remote option if CMRO and Pitt medical experts deem the Delta variant to be an increasing danger to the Pitt community,” Ramanan said. “This really depends on how the pandemic progresses.”

The late timing of the decision could lead to increased tensions between faculty and the administration at a time of much questioning about the proper relationship between the two. Faculty members will start to vote when the semester begins about whether or not to form a union and union organizers have made Pitt’s conduct during the pandemic a key part of their campaign.

Leaders at other Pennsylvania state-related universities — quasi-private, quasi-public institutions which receive an annual appropriation from the state legislature to subsidize in-state tuition — have faced dissent from faculty in recent weeks, largely due to the nearly unanimous decision from these schools to not require a COVID-19 vaccine. Faculty at Penn State — which, similar to Pitt, did not require a vaccine — held a vote of no confidence last Friday on their respective administration’s virus response planning.

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