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All three Arizona public university presidents provided an update on the COVID-19 outbreak on their respective campuses Friday morning during an Arizona Board of Regents meeting.
They hailed the efforts of their communities thus far while providing insight into what their schools would be doing next.
ASU: Fall will be “last semester for ASU as an archaic, stone-age institution”
Arizona State University President Michael Crow confidently told the board to mark their calendars for January, when he said ASU would prove its oft-repeated designation as the top school for innovation.
Michael Crow (Photo: Deanna Dent, Deanna Dent)
“Fall 2020 is the last semester for ASU as an archaic, stone-age institution,” he said. “We are, by the opening of spring semester 2021, going to be the most advanced teaching and learning program that humans have ever built.”
Crow said the university next year will be launching technology it’s been developing through the pandemic, essentially describing it as a paradigm shift that would forever change the way its students learn and grow during their time at the school.
“We’re throwing away the chiseled ax taped to a piece of wood with some cow hide,” he said. “We are moving forward in the most advanced modalities possible, because now we understand more than we ever understood before.”
Prior to his closing comments, Crow had spent his time with the board, like the other presidents, praising the work done by his university in the midst of a chaotic year.
Crow said the university as of Friday was in its second operations mode, a hybrid model that permits people to come into and out of the university at will.
“We’re operating under the assumption of personal responsibility and choice,” he said, adding that “things are going about as well as could be expected.”
ASU Online has seen skyrocketing enrollment numbers this semester, with Crow saying 10,000 more students were participating in online programs than in the previous semester.
The university in total has an enrollment just below 130,000, the largest in its history.
The freshman retention rate for the fall semester, while slightly lower than in the past, was comparable to the university’s fall 2019 rate, Crow said.
“It’s a tremendous achievement in terms of being able to keep students on track for their degrees while the world around them is unbelievably complicated,” he said.
Crow applauded the ingenuity of ASU’s faculty and staff, saying they’ve come up with “thousands” of unique ways to connect and work with students despite the ongoing obstacles.
As of Friday, Crow said there were five cases of COVID-19 among staff members and a positivity rate for students that hovered at around 2%.
UA stats getting better after Labor Day surge
University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins summarized the timeline of actions the university has taken since it was first notified of the COVID-19 outbreak on Jan. 26.
He specifically recalled March 11 as a game-changing day, in which the university began “seriously thinking” about how it would address the outbreak. That date fell during spring break, with the university ultimately opting to ask students to not return to campus if possible.
Robbins said an “incredible tour de force” of faculty and staff, particularly the university’s IT department, quickly worked to figure out a way to allow students to finish the spring term despite the obstacles.
He said the university has the capability of doing 8,000 antigen tests and 1,700 PCR tests per week through the end of the term.
“We think it’s very important to do as many tests as we possibly can,” Robbins said.
He said he believes it would be ideal to eventually have a “10-second, 10-cent test” so that everyone could test every day, but that that could be a ways out.
As of right now, he said the university’s bioengineering facility is developing what he hopes could be a “one minute, one dollar” test ready to deploy in January.
Robbins said the university’s priority is identifying those who are asymptomatic but are still potentially spreading the virus while on-campus, adding that the university continues to set aside dorms to use as isolation facilities if needed.
The university accurately predicted a surge in cases after Labor Day, with Robbins saying there were between 400 and 450 students in isolation following the “incredible spike.”
There was also, at one point, a 300-person party near the university’s health sciences center, he said, echoing Cheng’s appreciation for university and police departments working to identify and address risks to public health and safety.
Robbins said “a few” students have been expelled for violations relating to COVID-19 guidelines, but he did not expand further.
Additionally, Robbins said a “large number” of cases on campus were “clearly connected back to Rush,” referring to recruitment weeks for campus sororities and fraternities.
Though Rush activities were officially done over Zoom and teleconferencing, Robbins said through contact tracing, the university discovered unofficial in-person gatherings had taken place.
“While disappointing, it’s good that we know and we’ve addressed it,” he said, adding that 17 out of 22 sorority or fraternity houses were in quarantine as of Friday.
He said he generally believes the situation was improving on campus.
He also said there’s been a “very low” transmission of the virus in classrooms and public spaces on campus, attributing that to a slew of mitigation efforts including a mask requirement and physical distancing.
About 6,200 students were doing some type of in-person learning, he said. There were 20 cases of employees contracting COVID-19, while 174 students were in isolation dorms, he said.
Robbins said he toyed with the idea of requiring the university community to get a flu shot, but he said he got “a lot of pushback” and the university would ultimately just “strongly encourage” people to get one.
Though the fall semester looks much different than previous ones, Robbins said mitigation efforts couldn’t be slowed down.
“I think the whole world is struggling with COVID burnout,” he said. “Certainly we’d like to see more interactions and have our students get back to class sooner, but we’ve got to wait until it’s safer.”
He said he doesn’t see the emphasis on testing going away until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, saying the university community should brace for the long haul.
“We’ve gotta learn how to live with this, how to mitigate it and how to get our students back in the classroom and move forward,” he said.
NAU: 2,000 tests are being conducted each week
Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng praised the university community’s response to the virus.
Cheng highlighted some of the mitigation efforts NAU took to prevent widespread outbreaks on campus in the fall semester, which included requiring that students moving to an on-campus dorm test negative for COVID-19 and implementing a phased move-in process.
Northern Arizona University President Rita H. Cheng speaks during a press conference regarding innovative COVID-19 solutions on Sept. 24, 2020, at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in Phoenix. (Photo: Sean Logan/The Republic)
She said the university has been closely working with Coconino County officials and the Arizona Department for Health Services, and added that the NAU Fieldhouse performed 3,000 COVID-19 tests between Aug. 10 and Aug. 30.
Cheng commended the partnership between the facility and Arizona State University, and said the NAU Fieldhouse has completed 10,000 tests since Sept. 2 using ASU’s saliva-testing technology. Those tests were conducted on students, faculty, staff and Flagstaff residents, she said.
She added that 2% of the NAU campus is being tested each day, with 2,000 tests being conducted each week.
The positivity rate among the university community was lower than Coconino County at large, which as of Friday had a cumulative 9% positivity rate.
Cheng said university police were working closely with Flagstaff Police Department to identify and address reports of both on and off-campus events that could put public health at risk, adding that members of the public are encouraged to submit an online report if they see a student or group of students violating health guidelines.
In her closing statements to the board, Cheng said the university was working quickly and efficiently to address student needs both in and out of the classroom. As of Friday, Cheng said 80% of university classes have some type of in-person interaction, but that students were acclimating well to the increased usage of virtual classes this semester.
“Our students tell us they are engaged and appreciate the use of Zoom and massive use of technology on campus and the ability for us to keep the semblance of campus engagement in a very unusual time,” she said.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8529. Follow her on Twitter @brieannafrank.
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