Arizona Universities Prepare for Fall Semester Amid Spike in Infections

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey speaks about the latest coronavirus data at a June 25 news conference in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — With the start of classes barely six weeks away, University of Arizona administrators still don’t know what the return to campus for fall semester will look like — or if it will happen at all.

If the decision were made today about bringing 45,000 students and 15,000 employees back, it probably wouldn’t happen, said Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who is leading a UA re-entry task force.

“We can only open if we can provide a relatively safe environment for students, faculty and staff,” said Carmona, who served as surgeon general from 2002-06. “The way we are today, with very few hospital beds available, very few ICU beds available, I think it would be unsafe.”

The state Department of Health Services reported 4,221 new cases Friday with 44 new deaths. Of the state’s 116,892 known cases, half were in people between the ages of 20 and 44. Just over 13,000 cases were in people under 20. Eight Arizonans under 20 have died from Covid-19, and 114 from age 20-44, the state reports.

Arizona’s major colleges – University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and Northern Arizona University – are approaching the fall semester in a variety of ways. All are planning on-campus housing with stringent cleaning regimens, will require masks and social distancing and will offer live streams of at least some in-person classes. All will step up testing for students.

Carmona is meeting daily with UA President Robert Robbins to take stock of the situation. They examine data from the county, state, nation and world, because 15% of UA students are international. When his work started in May, Arizona’s Covid-19 spike had not yet hit. Arizona had among the lowest transmission rates in the nation, Carmona said.

“We’ve gone from first in class to worst in class in Arizona,” he said.

The University of Arizona will rely on a “test, trace and treat” plan as students return Aug. 24, though as of July 10 some parts were still not in place. Carmona said part of the reason for that is because Covid-19 is a “moving target.”

UA looked at a spectrum of choices from returning to normal, which is definitely off the table now, to all online classes. Ultimately it will likely be a mix of in-person classes where necessary, such as labs, and Zoom classes, which could keep vulnerable students and faculty safe, Carmona said.

Nansi Naranjo’s son, Tony Yonan, 18, will attend UA while living at home in Tucson.

Naranjo is worried about him, but more worried about what his contact means to her and others.

She thinks students can return to class in relative safety, with precautions. She thinks the campus experience is important, especially for students who have been cooped up for six months. She hopes Yonan can have some semblance of normalcy outside the classrooms.

“I don’t see as great a risk in classes as there is going to be in dorms and also just the parties,” Naranjo said.

Yonan plans to major in computer science. He has not yet had orientation or a Zoom meeting with a counselor, and he doesn’t yet know if he’s going to go to class or live stream classes. He is resigned to the realities of Covid-19 and is willing to accept the changes and expects to lose out on some of the college experience, including social life.

“College students are going to have to give up a lot,” he said.

If it were up to him, there would be no in-person classes for the fall semester. A final decision on the structure of classes for fall will be made in the next two to three weeks, Carmona said.

Classes begin Aug. 12 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where 30,000 students will enroll. The early start will allow students to complete the fall semester by Thanksgiving instead of Christmas, preventing a mass exodus and return of students in November.

Last year 5,600 NAU students were in online classes; this year that number is potentially all 30,000, as all classes will be live streamed.

Orientation has been completely revamped, said Chad Eickhoff, director of Recruitment and Orientation, in a video posted for students.

“We have transitioned off of the on-campus orientation model and moved to a virtual orientation,” and academic advisors will meet students only online, Eickhoff said.

Sunny Herndon is sending her daughter, Josephine, to NAU to study elementary education. Herndon was very excited about her daughter immersing herself in clubs and other social life.

“Now I feel like she’s going to be sitting in her dorm doing Zoom classes,” Herndon said.

But illness is the top concern.

“What if she gets sick four hours from home? Will there be a hospital bed for her? Will there be someone to take care of her?” she wondered.

Josephine has already gone through orientation online and met with her student guide and five or six other students. Her plan is to be cautious and start with Zoom class attendance for a few weeks to see if Covid-19 spikes on campus. She’s worried.

“It does scare me, mostly because I can’t control what other people do,” she said, referring to masks and social distancing.

She feels safe, mainly because NAU has been sending her emails about twice weekly and posting lots of information online about measures they are taking.

Classes begin Aug. 20 at Arizona’s largest university, Arizona State in Tempe. More than 70,000 students there will continue a shift that began in the spring, when the pandemic started, said Sukhwant Jhaj, vice-provost for academic innovation, in a webinar earlier this month.

“After March, when we went to remote learning, we started streaming our in-person classes,” Jhaj said. “What we are planning to do in fall is a next level of that design.”

All of ASU’s 1,000-plus classrooms are being outfitted for two-way video communication, and the classes themselves are being redesigned to make use of it. Instructors will have flexibility to decide exactly how this plays out. Instructors could choose, for example, to have half of students in class on any given day, rotating the groups so that each student gets class time, Jhaj said.

Luke Hinderaker, 18, will be a freshman at ASU this fall. He’ll be living in the dorm, and although his dad is at risk because of a heart condition, he thinks the return to campus can be safe.

Hinderaker is upset that he won’t be playing lacrosse, but he considers the high-contact sport too risky. He will consider swimming, should that be an option. His high school hasn’t even held a graduation yet. It was originally postponed to August, and this week the school announced it would be a virtual ceremony.

Dorms scare him, he said, and he wonders if the return to campus will last.

“There will be multiple, multiple cases on campus, and I do fear that they might say, ‘We’re in over our heads with cases, and we’re going to have to send everyone home,’” he said. “But I’m hopeful everyone on campus will take this seriously.”

With free Covid-19 testing for students, masks and social distancing required, and online class offerings, Hinderaker is not overly worried.

“That’s not to say that I’m not going to take it seriously and wear a mask, but I’m healthy, and I’m not in a risk category that’s really most affected,” he said.

Because his dad is in a risk category, Hinderaker plans to limit travel home to Tucson. When he does visit, he is considering staying in his family’s guest house, he said.

Carmona at UA said that his task force and the entire administration is approaching the fall semester not only as administrators, but also as parents.

“We have to be able to tell those parents and students that we have a plan in place that will keep them safe,” he said.

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