Arizona public university presidents tout COVID-19 response during regents call

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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.

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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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