Fall Semester Planning Process Begins with Input from Experts, Stakeholders

A student walks on campus, with the Cathedral of Learning in the backgroundWhile lawmakers and public health experts consider next steps in relaxing current social distancing measures, planning for the complex task of resuming campus operations at the University of Pittsburgh is already underway.

In a message to the University community, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher outlined a planning framework designed to address a range of pandemic scenarios over the coming months.

“No later than early June, we will identify specific strategies to respond to each scenario and offer guidance so that faculty and staff can prepare for the year ahead. By early July, we will share explicit guidance with students and their families so that they can begin to make plans for the fall,” said Gallagher.

Gallagher also stressed the need for plans to be flexible and responsive to a dynamic environment: “We know how to operate without COVID-19, and now we know—painfully!—how to operate amid an acute outbreak in our region. Moving forward, we must explore the uncharted territory between these two extremes.”

To guide the complex array of plans needed, senior vice chancellors will be leading planning activities and three task forces will provide guidance to senior leaders and decision makers, including the Emergency Operation Center. A website to keep the Pitt community apprised of planning progress with an accompanying feedback portal have been established.

These task forces are made up of specialized working groups and will consider not only what fall 2020 might look like, but also how all five University campuses can begin a phased reopening of some areas of campus and physical operations throughout the summer as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the state’s Department of Health determine regions of the commonwealth have met the criteria to move from red to yellow phases.

Re-imagining fall 2020 education

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University moved to a remote teaching style in early March to safeguard the health of faculty, students and staff. An important opportunity exists now to learn from that experience and plan creatively to continue delivering an excellent and flexible Pitt education in the fall and beyond. Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd has established a task force that she will co-chair with James Martin, U.S. Steel Dean of the Swanson School of Engineering, who has expertise in risk engineering. It will focus on reimagining the academic and student experience.

Cudd and Martin have assembled a team that includes members of the provost’s cabinet, representatives from the Office of Community and Governmental Relations and scientific advisors. Additionally, five working groups have been established: educational technology and teaching, graduate studies and research, health and housing, out-of-the-classroom experiences and undergraduate studies.

“Pulling together the perspectives of faculty, students, staff and community partners—including epidemiologists—the team will work to consider every tool and resource available in re-imagining and enhancing the academic experience,” she added.

Ramping up research

On March 20, the University restricted on-campus research to only essential activities, such as the efforts underway to discover ways to treat, fight and prevent COVID-19. The change did not mean that non-essential research and scholarly activities stopped, noted Rob A. Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research. “Instead, all research that could be carried out remotely continued.

“To redefine how we approach research, we are focusing on the incredible diversity of activities happening at the University. Everyone thinks about labs and clinical activities, but our guidance must consider spaces, such as libraries and arts studios,” said Rutenbar.

To address the varied needs of research at Pitt, Rutenbar is leading the task force to focus on the restart of research at the University, made up of seven working groups: School of Medicine; health sciences; animal resources; STEM; arts, humanities, social sciences and libraries; remote research; and logistics. Each group is led by two co-chairs, who will work with the associate deans for research. An executive committee is composed of some members of the senior staff of the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research and leadership from related research units.

Returning to campus

The University is a complex organization with many components requiring specialized consideration, from child care and regional campus operations to occupancy and construction projects. The task force on employees and operations—chaired by David DeJong, vice chancellor for human resources and acting senior vice chancellor for business and operations—will examine these questions from the perspective of Pitt people, business and operations. 

“Just as circumstances prompted a rapid shift to working from a distance, they also afford the opportunity to develop a thoughtful plan for transitioning back to life on campus and developing a vision for our new normal,” said DeJong.

Working groups include transitioning workplace considerations; buildings; dining facilities; parking, transportation and mobility; human resources, financials and risk management; health sciences faculty and staff HR; regional campuses; and childcare.

These groups will seek innovative solutions to new problems, such as how the University can accommodate working families with kids at home as physical operations resume and how Pitt can support employees vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.

“Our touchstone is safety,” said Ted Fritz, vice chancellor for public safety and emergency management. “Everything we do is done with safety in mind. We want to get it up and running, but we want to do so in a safe and compliant manner.”

Key takeaways

  • Planning is currently underway and task force working groups began holding virtual meetings late last week. Pitt community members are invited to share ideas and strategies with the task forces via an online submission form on the planning website.
  • The task forces include more than 100 staff and faculty members and undergraduate and graduate students from across the University, representing the diverse academic and business and operations units.
  • Chancellor Gallagher and task force leaders expect to have specific strategies developed by early June with a goal of having guidelines for the fall term ready for students and families by early July. Additional details and will likely come throughout the summer and be shared on the planning website.