With COVID-19 vaccines already administered to thousands of people across Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office presented a plan on Tuesday evening to begin vaccinations, with up to 800 shots for Pitt and “local” students set for next Thursday and Friday.
Student Government Board hosted a virtual community check-in with Kenyon Bonner, the vice provost and dean of students, and Dr. Joe Suyama, a member of the CMRO, to discuss and answer questions regarding the spring semester.
The distribution of vaccines to both Pitt students and employees was heavily discussed due to Pennsylvania expanding its 1A vaccination group on Tuesday to anyone who is 65 and older or between the ages of 18 to 64 with pre-existing medical conditions. This will allow additional Pitt students to be eligible for vaccinations.
Dr. Suyama said the move makes Pitt, along with UPMC, eligible now to receive and distribute vaccines, in conjunction with the Allegheny County Health Department. He said the students being vaccinated work in either the health sciences or COVID-19 related research, or have pre-existing medical conditions.
Dr. Suyama added that a survey is “coming forth” for students and staff to determine vaccination eligibility.
Pitt officials also discussed other parts of the University’s COVID-19 response at the event.
Bonner said the fall semester was a learning experience for the University and many changes have been implemented based on student feedback, especially when it comes to isolating and quarantining students. He said by checking in more frequently with quarantined and isolated students, administrators will be able to listen to feedback and implement changes about food choices, amenities and mental health resources.
Steve Anderson, an associate dean of students and director of the Office of Residence Life, said one key modification to student isolation and quarantine is more food choices. “At least five choices a day” are now available, he said.
“Students can actually go online and order their selection of food now,” Anderson said. “They get that link as well in their email, and they’re also checked on if they don’t put an order in.”
Dr. Suyama said students in isolation may be able to get tested during their isolation period to potentially shorten how long they must quarantine for, based on test results.
Bonner said more Student Health Service workers and administrative support staff have been hired and the University has expanded its COVID-19 surveillance testing capabilities. Pitt can now test up to four times as many students per day compared to the fall semester, up from roughly 280 per day during the fall, he said.
One change that Pitt has already implemented for arrival this spring is making students take a COVID test before arriving on campus. Students are also encouraged to shelter in place for at least seven days prior to moving into their dorms and again for 10 days once moved in. Dr. Suyama said Pitt is requiring this for the spring semester as part of an effort to avoid increased COVID numbers seen during fall move-in.
“This is giving us a sense of what could be coming our way,” Dr. Suyama said. “It’s not going to necessarily shut things down, but we need to know what’s coming back on campus so we can get ready for it.”
SGB members also brought up concerns about what grading policy the University would utilize for the spring semester.
Students were not able to convert letter grades to satisfactory/no credit during the fall, a change compared to last spring. Instead, as part of a compromise brokered between SGB and the administration, all students enrolled in fall courses would receive a note at the bottom of their transcripts indicating that courses were taken during the pandemic and may not accurately reflect the abilities of the student.
Tyler Viljaste, an SGB vice president and the chief of cabinet, and board member Kathryn Fleisher brought up dissatisfaction felt by some students with Pitt’s decision to not continue the satisfactory/no credit policy during the fall semester.
Fleisher said SGB received a lot of unhappy feedback from students who were disappointed with the decision.
“We received a lot of very personal, passionate, heartfelt personal feedback about the incomplete inadequacy of the grading system from last semester,” Fleisher said. “And the way that it not only made students feel like the University wasn’t prioritizing mental health and student well being, but also not listening to student feedback.”
Bonner said there is no plan currently to change the spring semester’s grading policy. But he said he and other Pitt administrators — such as Joe McCarthy, the vice provost for undergraduate studies — would remain open to hearing students’ feedback and thoughts.
In his closing remarks, Bonner said students need to pay attention to CMRO announcements and follow all health and safety precautions. He urged students to take care of their mental health and to reach out if themselves or others need support.
Bonner added that student discipline and behavior is incredibly important in order to mitigate the virus’ spread.
“It’s going to depend on behavior, in terms of students complying, faculty and staff complying, with our health and safety guidelines, it comes down to that as well,” Bonner said. “We can’t eliminate the virus, but we can mitigate it by following the health and safety guidelines.”