Dear Graduate Students, Graduate Faculty and Postdocs,
On March 19, 2020, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered the closing of all facilities in the Commonwealth that are not “life sustaining.” Among the facilities he ordered closed are all educational facilities in the Commonwealth, including higher education. Therefore, only certain types of activities that are allowed by the governor’s order are now permitted to occur in person on campus. This order will cause disruption of research and educational activities that will clearly have implications for graduate and professional students as well as postdocs. I am writing to provide some information about these changes and their impact on graduate and professional students and also postdocs.
The Provost and the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research have provided new guidance on the University’s response to the COVID-19 emergency. This message clarifies the impact of this guidance on graduate and professional students and postdocs, and the responsibilities of graduate faculty.
Health and well-being are priorities:
A primary concern is the health and well-being of the members of our University community. Faculty, students, postdocs, and staff all should make sure that we prioritize the physical and mental health of ourselves and our colleagues in this time. These new restrictions are necessary to protect Pitt faculty, staff, and students—and also the general public—from becoming ill. In particular, faculty should be responsive to concerns of students and postdocs about their health and safety. These changes will be disruptive and create significant challenges. I am confident that we can work through these challenges, but only if we are physically and mentally well.
In this period of social distancing, please reach out more than usual to colleagues by phone and video to maintain connections with friends, teachers, mentors, and colleagues. Lower any barriers for reaching out and connecting with each other, especially those you know who are living alone. Please know that as you support one another, others in your community are ready and willing to support you.
As described in the Provost’s letter, in-person graduate classes have all been moved to various online formats. With this transition, students should soon be getting information about any courses that you are taking. No courses, workshops, lab meetings or journal clubs should meet in person. None of these are permitted under the governor’s order.
Research activities will be restricted from campus unless they fall under one of the exceptions permitted by the governor’s order. Most on-campus laboratory work will not be permitted. For any on-campus research projects that are continuing, students and postdocs should be consulted before they are listed as essential and the limits of their assignment should be clarified. Requests to identify students and postdocs as essential researchers will receive additional scrutiny at the school and/or University level.
Students and faculty are encouraged to continue research activities remotely when this is possible. This may include project planning, writing, analysis of data, remote meeting and remote collection of data. We expect that graduate students and postdocs will continue to work with their faculty advisors remotely. Advisors and programs should communicate with students about how students can continue to make progress in their programs during this time of restricted activity. Support for students (e.g., stipend, tuition scholarships and health insurance) appointed as GSRs and GSAs will continue through this period even if they are unable to continue to work on funded projects. This disruption may lead to delays in students' completing milestones and slow research progress, especially for students involved in projects that are heavily based in laboratory experiments.
Faculty should show compassion and flexibility in the expectations that they have for students and postdocs in this time. Just as we as faculty will be asking for flexibility from our funding agencies and from the committees that review our research and academic progress, faculty should be flexible with their trainees and understand the limitations that they are facing and the concerns that they may have.
Thesis defenses and other milestones:
All requirements for in-person participation in thesis committees and other milestones are suspended. These activities should be moved to online platforms. Support for electronic thesis and dissertations is still available.
Teaching Assistants and Teaching Fellows:
TA and TFs are expected to continue with modifications their responsibilities and assignments as instruction changes to the online mode. The Center for Teaching and Learning has been and will continue to provide workshops to help instructors and TAs make this transition. Faculty should be explicit in helping TAs and TFs understand the expectations associated with this transition. TAs still cannot be asked to spend more than an average of 20 hours per week on their TA or TF assignment. TAs cannot be asked to travel to campus as part of their assigned duties. Students appointed as TAs and TFs will continue to receive their support (e.g., stipend, tuition scholarship and health insurance) during this time, even if their responsibilities change or are reduced.
We understand that our international students face additional challenges at this time. One important clarification is that the U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has sent out notifications to all institutions that they understand that adjustments to regular in-person classes are being made in the interest of the health and safety of everyone. They have indicated their intention to be flexible about temporary adaptations to teaching, so students on an F-1 visa can be assured that your visa status will not be affected by participation in online classes for the remainder of the semester. OIS has provided additional guidance that is included in the list of resources below.
In addition to the COVID-19 Response website, we are compiling resources for graduate and professional students and postdocs. Please check these sites frequently for updates and new resources.
Pitt is committed to supporting graduate and professional students and postdocs, and the current COVID-19 pandemic is a significant challenge to our work in this area. It is critical that we support each other as we face these challenges.
We welcome your ideas about how we can support all members of our community during this time, please reach out and share your thoughts and ideas.