Faculty Assembly discusses pandemic learning, background checks and HIPAA

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Pitt’s Faculty Assembly met Wednesday afternoon to discuss the future of teaching at Pitt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Katie Cassidy, Staff Writer

Students, faculty and staff have moved in and out of remote learning and dealt with fluctuating classroom policies over the past year and a half — and the issues surrounding learning during the COVID-19 learning show no signs of letting up.

Pitt’s Faculty Assembly met in a hybrid fashion Wednesday afternoon to discuss how the University will move forward with teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to approve two draft policies from the Benefits and Welfare committee.

Lorraine Denman, co-chair of the faculty affairs committee, presented the committee’s Pandemic Related Teaching Issues Report, which outlines two primary “areas of concern” that emerged during the committee’s conversations with faculty — the use of Zoom or hybrid, or asynchronous methods of teaching and student assessment. She said the “overwhelming majority” of faculty members that talked to the committee advocated for more trust in faculty members to determine their own classroom policies.

“It is a question of whether hybrid, remote or asynchronous options even work for a particular classroom environment or course,” Denman said. “I wouldn’t want to take away that option from anyone, but I think that it’s important to have a clear message about how we are talking about the required, suggested or mandatory use of Zoom.”

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Bonnie Falcione, an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy, said the legality of recording classroom content should be made more clear to both students and faculty. Falcione said there is a “lack of awareness” on copyright laws and how these relate to classroom recordings.

“I think the education component is an important initiative,” Falcione said. “I recognize that not all units may agree to that, but it provides an opportunity for faculty to have that conversation with students, particularly if there is going to be use of recorded materials made available.”

Denman said the University Center for Teaching and Learning provides only a “suggested,” rather than required, statement on classroom recordings. The statement indicated that no recordings can be made without “written permission of the instructor” and must be for students’ private use only.

Denman said administrators should take steps to make this a required syllabi statement.

“I think it would be advantageous to have that be a mandatory policy that goes on the syllabi, even for just now as we may or may not be on Zoom for the foreseeable future,” Denman said.

Claudia Kregg-Byers, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, questioned whether the report considered student input about Zoom and hybrid teaching. Based on experience in her own classrooms, she said students and faculty members must have a “respected give and take” and clear understandings in order for the classroom to run effectively.

“We are trying to encourage open communication and a safe place to have opinions about things,” Kregg-Byers said. “I do understand that you’re all saying that Zoom and recording policies should be left to the faculty, but I’m not sure that the freedom of making that decision is evident in all units.”

Senate Council President Robin Kear acknowledged the need for faculty autonomy when it comes to classroom recordings. Kear said decisions on structuring classes either in a hybrid or in-person manner should be left up to the faculty and determined on a class-by-class basis.

“One of the goals of this report is to trust the faculty and trust what they are doing in their classrooms,” Kear said. “If it makes sense for them to record, then that’s perfectly up to them. If they feel it should be more private, then that shouldn’t have to be recorded.”

The Assembly voted to approve the report, with the goal being for the provost to incorporate clear and timely messaging to the faculty and staff for the spring term.

The Assembly also discussed two draft policies, one on the protection of children from abuse and the other on HIPAA.

Linda Tashbook, co-chair of the benefits and welfare committee, presented the policy on protection of children from abuse. Tashbook said the policy focuses primarily on background checks for employees who “work regularly with children.” She said the University’s roughly 40 Responsibility Centers, or major administrative units, are in charge of organizing and determining who covers the cost of these background checks.

“This policy establishes that the Responsibility Centers, in which there are employees who need to get background checks, will work with Human Resources and ensure that within six weeks of employment, new employees will get those checks squared away,” Tashbook said.

Abbe de Vallejo, an associate professor of pediatrics and immunology, said the University should include provisions to cover fees for students who need to obtain these background checks.

“Sometimes students cannot gain their educational credits or experience without such research,” de Vallejo said. “I think it is important that the University think about a mechanism of how to reimburse these fees for students because it is required.”

The Assembly presented differing views on the issue of paying for these checks. Kear said the Assembly could introduce the issue to the Student Government Board in order to get student perspectives on the topic. The Assembly voted unanimously in favor of the policy and sent it to Pitt’s Senate Council for review.

Tashbook also presented the draft University policy on HIPAA, which she said combines the previous 13 policies used by the University in relation to HIPAA into one all-encompassing policy. HIPAA is a set of federal regulations guiding the protection of individual health information and confidentiality.

Laurel Gift, assistant vice chancellor in the Office of Compliance, Investigations and Ethics, said there tends to be confusion on the application of HIPAA versus FERPA in the University community. She said while this new policy works to alleviate some confusion by establishing clear guidelines, there is a need to continue education on the topics.

“I think as we implement this compliance program, once this policy becomes official, there’s gonna be a lot of re-education of our community about when FERPA applies versus when HIPAA applies,” Gift said. “My office is going to be tasked with a lot of education that goes on, and implementing our compliance program going forward.”

Tashbook said the draft policy provides specific procedures to ensure “consistent compliance” with HIPAA across the University.

“Each new member of the covered components workforce must be trained on HIPAA privacy policies as relevant to their particular tasks,” Tashbook said. “There will also be annual training for review and for updating.”

The Assembly voted unanimously to send the HIPAA draft policy to the Senate for review and discussion.