Chatham University has been able to expand COVID-19 testing, compared to the start of the fall semester. (Photo: Jay Manning/PublicSource)

With COVID-19 cases rising following the holidays and an expected lengthy vaccine rollout, Pittsburgh-area colleges and universities are bracing for another difficult semester. How things will look for students and faculty this spring will be informed by lessons from the fall.

“The whole thing has been a real challenge for everybody, but I believe that the response from the students and the faculty and the administration has really made the best of this particular time,” said Susan O’Rourke, faculty senate chair at Carlow University.

Colleges are readjusting schedules to start the spring semester later, expanding COVID-19 testing, asking for student input on the fall semester and creating connections with classmates and professors — both online and in-person. Meanwhile, they face challenges like tighter budgets and deflated enrollment.

The University of Pittsburgh, for instance, is monitoring case metrics and advice from health officials before announcing a date when it would bring thousands of students back to campus. On Friday, the university advised students not to travel yet and said it wouldn’t advise travel until the last week of January, at the earliest. During a senate council meeting, university officials reinforced the need to be flexible as COVID-19 cases and the impact of the holiday season could change the infection rate.

Some universities are also preparing for students who initially signed up for online-only classes to come back to campus in the spring. Keith Paylo, the vice president of student affairs at Point Park University, said it is a good sign students feel more comfortable coming back. That feeling is echoed at Seton Hill University in Greensburg.

“I think back to other generations and how they have had to go through some tough things and what it taught them — and so I am seeing a level of resilience,” Seton Hill President Mary Finger said of the students.

What will college life be like in the spring? These Pittsburgh-area schools shared lessons they’re taking into the new semester.

Testing, testing, testing

When students returned in the fall, campuses faced the challenge of containing the virus with limited testing. Now schools like Chatham University have been able to ramp up testing, enabling quicker responses to the virus.

“When we started, we were able to start with just symptomatic and close contact testing. We began with a couple weeks of that. Then we were able to layer more testing as the semester went on and our testing resources and capabilities expanded,” Chatham spokesman Bill Campbell said, referring to the sample testing and asymptomatic testing of people who do not show symptoms. Chatham was able to add more testing with county and federal assistance.

Chatham saw a spike in mid-October after the university tested some athletes through sample testing, which means “testing of community groups, which identifies asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals and serves as another important health and safety protocol in our efforts to manage COVID-19 on campus,” according to the campus website.

University officials noticed a member of the men’s hockey team had mild symptoms, which spurred additional testing and paused team activities, Campbell said.

The school’s positivity rate went from .84% in late September to 15.8% by mid-October. The case count went from 1 to 31 for the campus. On Oct. 16, Chatham moved undergraduate classes fully online, Campbell said.

But testing is only part of the strategy. While the university was able to alert students to the spread of cases within the men’s hockey team, those athletes were already being tested.

“The takeaway for me was that sometimes testing gives a false sense of security. Everybody tested negative, we’re fine we can put our guards down, we can do other stuff. And then that quickly led to a spike,” he said.

Campbell said the campus has focused on limiting close contacts, which the school stated is “anyone who has been within 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes within 48 hours of the person being symptomatic.”

For the spring semester, the university will use sample testing to monitor possible spread of the virus. Chatham will also now require that students have a negative test five days before arriving back on campus.

Other universities have adjusted testing as well.

Before students return to Duquesne University, they are required to test themselves with kits sent by the university, according to Provost David Dausey. Students who do not provide a negative test will “not be able to move into residences, attend in-person classes on campus, or visit any other campus offices or buildings,” according to a university update.

Seton Hill will test all students within 10 days of arriving on campus and will follow with a second round of testing, according to Finger. The campus is also delaying the start of the semester to February.

The training worked

While faculty had little time last spring to prepare for a drastic shift to online learning, Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] Provost Stuart Blacklaw said that by the fall, professors and faculty were much more comfortable with the format.

“We built this mechanism of making sure everyone had access to the resources they needed the best we possibly could,” Blacklaw said. “The biggest difference between fall and spring is just the familiarity that people have with this instructional life that we now have.”

Carlow University reached out for student input to see how they viewed the end of the 2019–2020 school year. A campus survey asked students if they preferred asynchronous or synchronous learning and what type of activities worked best, according to the student-run newspaper.

“We wanted to be able to take the summer and help faculty prepare courses that would be more effective and have improved learning outcomes in the fall,” said O’Rourke, who is a professor of education.

Susan O’Rourke on Carlow University’s campus. (Photo: Jay Manning/PublicSource)

With money from the CARES Act, the university helped faculty design courses for the fall. Carlow University also relied on professional development programs through the Center for Digital Learning and Innovation at the school, O’Rourke said. Sessions offered faculty resources to build online course tools for students learning together or on their own time as well as resources to structure online classes. Faculty members were also introduced to software to help with things like recording video.

Through the spring survey, the university was able to address access barriers for students who had weak internet or didn’t have computers at home. With CARES funding, the university bought laptops and improved internet bandwidth for students, O’Rourke said.

As the fall semester came to an end, Carlow University sent students another survey to see what worked and what did not.

So far, O’Rourke said she has heard students appreciated additional efforts to make sure they understood the content of their courses, but they also connected more with their classes. Students enjoyed learning materials that were created by the professors more than textbooks or professionally made videos.

But online learning still comes with challenges. O’Rourke said she did not require everyone to turn on cameras and so some students would not, a trend noted by others.

“It makes people vulnerable if you expect them to turn their cameras on. They’re not comfortable or embarrassed or don’t want you to see their family members,” O’Rourke said.

“It made me feel as if I had to work harder to try and connect with them,” she said. “But I don’t think that means that we make them turn their cameras on.”

Building community matters more

In a normal year, Kelly Wilding would be able to introduce freshmen to Point Park through a mandatory class that focuses on campus resources available to them and how to adjust to college. The class creates a sense of community.

But with the pandemic, Wilding said she was unsure how she could replicate that experience.

Community service projects that allowed students to visit in person were limited or out of the question. Some students may opt for in-person learning while others only learn online. She asked herself, how could she still create that feeling of community?

Then she met her 12 students and saw how receptive they were to the class, she said.

“The first thing I said was we were going to be a cohort and create our own community. They were also high school students who had to finish online,” Wilding explained.

Kelly Wilding teaches a course to help Point Park University freshmen adjust to college. (Photo: Jay Manning/PublicSource)

She said it was also important to tackle bigger issues like the anxiety of being away from family during a deadly pandemic as well as racism and issues of equality. To do so, Wilding said she made her classroom a “brave space” by letting students know they could participate if they wanted.

“They had permission to not participate in the conversation or not say anything. No one was forcing anything,” she said.

She noted that some of the conversations may not have been as personal as they would have been with everyone in person. Like so many professors, Wilding had to try and connect with students in multiple formats.

“The bottom line is that students do want to connect with each other and connect with their professor, too,” Wilding said.

Changing calendars and course loads

To keep up with the changes brought on by the pandemic, schools have learned how to be more flexible with schedules. At Carnegie Mellon University, the start of the spring semester was pushed back partly to help with international students who may have more trouble getting to campus. At CCAC, students had to dial back course loads.

Some universities in Pittsburgh have experienced declines in enrollment, which has become a national trend. In response, some schools are trying to adjust calendars and make more accommodations. Nationwide, enrollment is down 3.3% at colleges and universities, according to data compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The Community College of Allegheny County campus. (Photo: Jay Manning/PublicSource)

International student enrollment was also down nationally. Carnegie Mellon spokeswoman Julie Mattera said a decline in international enrollment there was mostly related to the pandemic and resulting travel restrictions and challenges in obtaining visas.

“Carnegie Mellon shifted the beginning of the spring semester to February 1, in part, to allow our international students more time for visa processing and travel to arrive for in-person classes,” she said in an email.

In times of economic struggle, people traditionally return to school to retrain. That pattern has been upended by the pandemic.

At CCAC, Blacklaw said course enrollment dropped from an average of 9.5 credit hours to eight.

“Students who would normally take five courses in a semester are thinking, well you know I’m not sure how Zoom really works and I’m a little nervous about that so maybe I will take three. I think what we’re seeing is that the students are taking loads that are a little bit lighter,” Blacklaw said.

He also said students at CCAC have other obligations like being caregivers or may have transportation challenges. Overall, he said students may work slower through the curriculum this year. But the community college was able to graduate more than 200 nurses in the fall, an accomplishment he said is needed to help combat the coronavirus.

The college also passed out laptops and hotspots and opened the computer labs for students who could still make it to campus and needed to access online coursework.

Uncertainty in financial stability

Colleges are also grappling with COVID-19’s financial impact.

Some universities have delayed capital projects, like the renovation of Anderson Dining Hall at Chatham University, and some have stopped nonessential hiring and reduced courses. Point Park cut the number of courses and part-time faculty members while still making sure students remain on track, said President Paul Hennigan. He declined to cite how many faculty have been laid off this school year.

Duquesne recently announced a voluntary retirement program and will not renew eight contracts of non-tenure faculty members, according to Vice President for Marketing and Communications Gabriel Welsch.

Dausey said from 2012 to 2014 the university saw a decline in student enrollment but did not respond by reducing faculty size, a decision that is now taking a toll on the institution.

“The reality is our current circumstances are driven in part by the fact that we didn’t make those decisions at that time,” he said.

Dausey said he realizes not everyone is going to be pleased with all decisions but that he “works with others as part of shared governance, to make those decisions.”

“The process I think is working here at Duquesne,” he said. “It enabled us to have an adjustment of our faculty workforce and in what I consider to be the least painful way — it’s never any fun to do any of these things, but in the least painful way possible.”

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.