Dear Members of the University Community:
Today, with the start of the term only a month away, we find the pandemic moving in the wrong direction. The last few weeks have exposed the challenges of delivering specific guidance far in advance, since the state of the pandemic continues to shift. If you’re like me, you are worrying about the record numbers of new cases across the country, including here in Pennsylvania, and wondering if our plans for the fall still make sense.
I hear your concerns, and I share them, too.
Despite these challenges, I believe that our planning efforts have been successful. Our plan for returning to campus in the fall, the Resilience Framework, is intentionally responsive to the external world and allows us to maximize our mission while supporting the safety and well-being of our university communities.
The plan’s flexibility enables us to respond to rapidly changing pandemic conditions and operate under a full range of conditions. For example, our hybrid approach to teaching—called Flex @ Pitt—leverages technology to enable both in-person and remote learning. It’s built for success regardless of who is or isn’t in the classroom. Preparing for Flex @ Pitt has been an enormous effort on the part of our faculty and staff, but the ultimate payoff is that we don’t have to abandon our efforts and start over as the pandemic worsens or improves.
The Resilience Framework also decouples various University activities. For example, our instructional programs run independently of what is happening with our student housing or food service programs. This separation allows us to optimize each activity area and adapt to the appropriate local circumstances rather than force a one-size-fits-all approach.
Because of these planning features, the current strength of the pandemic, scary as it is, does not invalidate our preparations to date. At the same time—and no matter what the external conditions are—our plan will only work if executed well.
Our activities must follow the latest and best medical and health information and advice. We are a leading health sciences university with access to some of the top experts in infectious diseases, virology, epidemiology and medicine. Our newly created COVID-19 Medical Response Office will use testing, modeling, data, public health guidance and the latest science to shape our operations in real time. We will disseminate updates from this office to the entire University community so that everyone has access to the same information and recommendations that we are using to fuel our decisions.
Every planning option is on the table (and will remain on the table). In this pandemic, the path forward requires an active and ongoing dialogue—not a “set it and forget it” approach. We are used to predictable routines and schedules in a university. This year won’t work that way!
While we will be issuing planning guidance to help you prepare for likely outcomes, this guidance can and will change to accommodate the latest advice from our medical experts. For the fall term, several key details are still subject to change. These include:
- The arrival date of students on campus.
- The start of any in-person instruction, which adjusts the academic calendar.
- Available dining options.
- Housing and room arrangements.
Reducing the risk of COVID-19 requires both institutional and individual actions. Our decisions shape our risk of getting infected at both the individual and community levels; this reality requires us to assume new individual and collective responsibilities.
Come fall, we will be asking you to:
- Follow all health guidance or lose the privilege of entering our facilities or participating in University activities.
- Learn new information and receive new training.
- Take responsibility for your actions and share relevant information about your symptoms, travel and social contacts with authorized personnel.
- Expect the unexpected. Circumstances will likely vary over the course of a term, and both the institution and the individuals within it must adapt.
You have a critical role deciding on the risks you choose to accept. Students have flexibility in determining whether or not they want to be on campus. Students facing travel restrictions can elect to do any portion of the term remotely. Students at higher-risk health for COVID-19 complications can elect to stay home and utilize the remote learning options offered through Flex @ Pitt.
For faculty and staff, options will vary according to your role. If you don’t need to be on campus, you should continue to work remotely. If you must work on campus, we will be modifying your environment to ensure that the necessary safety measures, such as physical distance, barriers, indoor air quality and safety equipment, are implemented for your protection.
Employees have the flexibility to take leave if they are ill, symptomatic or being monitored for potential infection—or if they are a caregiver for someone who falls ill. We have also created a medical accommodation program to assist employees whose health or circumstances place them at undue risk for on-campus duties.
I know this is a scary time. The word “unprecedented” has been used to describe this pandemic so often, it’s become a cliche. Yet, we truly are forging into uncharted territory. Like you, I wish that we could fill in every blank responsibly—with confidence and absolute certainty. The wiser route, however, is to follow the science, look to the experts and leverage the latest information available.
What I do know is that this year will be like no other. It will put a premium on our ability to adapt, to be informed and to take on responsibility for ourselves and for those around us. This is a challenging but deeply worthwhile task. The act of educating students and performing vital research and scholarship is essential to our long-term well-being. It’s also an asset that the world needs now, more than ever.