Tad Theimer is losing sleep. After more than 20 years of teaching at Northern Arizona University, the professor in the biology department is weighing whether to submit his resignation.
He says it’s impossible, as a scientist looking at the data, to ignore the contradiction between what is known about the coronavirus pandemic and the university’s plans to reopen. But most of all, he thinks of his students.
“Am I supposed to tell my students it’s safe to come back, even though I think it’s complete folly?” he asked. “I’m in a moral dilemma.”
While Arizona remains in the national spotlight with rising COVID-19 infection rates and the nation’s highest rate of positive tests, NAU — along with University of Arizona and Arizona State University — hasn’t budged on plans to open the campus next month.
NAU plans to welcome about 20,000 students back to campus to resume modified in-person instruction in approximately three weeks, but multiple longtime professors at the university, as well as Flagstaff community members, say the outcome could be disastrous. They’ve published opinion columns, compiled research and started petitions in an effort to sound the alarm about their concerns.
Both Coconino Community College and Flagstaff Unified School District announced plans to delay in-person instruction last week. Grand Canyon University said Friday that it will delay in-person instruction until at least Sept. 28. Arizona State University and University of Arizona still plan to offer some in-person classes starting in August.
NAU had not announced plans for testing, contact tracing and quarantining students until Friday. The school also is in a different circumstance due to its location in a smaller city with only one major hospital.
Faculty there say it’s no secret that administrators’ fears of exacerbating the school’s already tenuous financial strains by going remote are a motivating factor to reopen. Enrollment numbers at the university were on decline even before the pandemic hit.
And as the university is adjusting university operations and expecting more enrollment drops, managing the school’s budget continues to be a challenge — more than 100 faculty positions were cut last month in anticipation of the changes.
Faculty and some community members say while they’re sympathetic to the pressures to reopen, the school should chose to prioritize the health and well-being of the NAU and Flagstaff community.
“People need to start paying more attention,” said Stephen Shuster, a professor in the biology department who has taught at NAU since 1990. “There is a disaster impending and I think it’s still possible to do something about it.”
NAU’s plans to reopen campus
The first day of class at NAU, Aug. 12, is less than a month away, but students will start arriving sooner.
Move in for on-campus students will begin Aug. 6, according to the school’s website.
Both dates are earlier than years past and than the scheduled start dates of ASU and UA, which will resume classes on Aug. 20 and 24.
NAU President Rita Cheng said in an announcement Friday that the university has a comprehensive plan to educate students, monitor local and regional health trends and conduct testing and contract tracing.
All students are required to wear a mask on campus and social distance.
The university’s plan “emphasizes personal responsibility,” which, Cheng said, starts long before students start to arrive on campus.
“We believe that we have the protocols and plans in place to mitigate risks to our students, faculty, and staff,” she said, adding that the university’s focus on student success is what prompted the decision to begin classes in August.
Accommodating students, faculty for in-person classes
The university says most classes will be available both in-person and online through a plan called NAUFlex. Students will alternate between attending class in-person and remotely through a schedule determined by the professor, who in most cases will have to teach in person the entire time.
Students who prefer fully remote classes are required to submit a request by July 31, which will be reviewed and granted based on the student’s course schedule.
Faculty and staff who wish to opt out of in-person instruction must request accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act. If they don’t qualify under the ADA, they must get approval for modifications from multiple levels of university leadership.
Considering the hurdles, Theimer said most faculty don’t feel like they have a choice.
“You either go face to face with at least a portion of your students or you potentially lose your job,” he said.
Faculty at ASU and UA in a high-risk category are also required to request accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act with other concerns evaluated by supervisors on a case-by-case basis, according to university officials.
Fewer classes are expected to be offered in-person at UA, however. A UA university spokeswoman said there is a high level goal of having about 50% of courses in each department offered in-person. The majority of classes at ASU will be offered both in-person and remote, through live lectures via Zoom, according to the school’s website.
Testing, contract tracing plans
Faculty representatives and research groups at the university have called NAU’s capacity for testing, contract tracing and quarantining into question.
A team of public health experts, through the university’s Center for Health Equity Research, published a “scientific update” to advise administrators on July 5.
The report outlined the status of the virus in Arizona, highlighting the “exponential growth” of the virus across the state and high percent positive test rates.
The report said that in an ideal world, NAU would test every student multiple times in the first two weeks and repeat testing over the course of the semester.
Still, rolling out plans for this type of centralized testing less than a month before classes start “may be disruptive to existing local efforts and infrastructure and may stall the ability for local health departments to identify, intervene and track clustered outbreaks locally, especially on the university campus,” the report read.
The team ultimately advised against re-opening the campus to in-person instruction.
The University Union for Northern Arizona, NAU’s employee union, also called for “free, regular” testing for all members of the NAU community, regardless of whether they are symptomatic.
“It is estimated that 25-50% of COVID-19 infected individuals are asymptomatic,” the union said in a July 8 statement. “Free, asymptomatic testing allows for thorough and effective contact tracing protocols.”
The university’s plans for testing, announced Friday, match neither of the groups’ advisement.
NAU will not conduct regular screenings of all students or groups of students. Instead, the university will prioritize the testing of symptomatic students or students who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, according to the university’s website.
Tests will be offered through campus health for a fee that is determined by the student’s health care plan. The university will conduct its own contact tracing, which will be reported to Coconino County.
ASU and UA are offering free tests to all students and benefits-eligible employees.
Kimberly Ott, a spokesperson for NAU, said the delay in the sharing of the plans allowed the university to provide more detail than was available several weeks ago.
“It has taken significant planning and development to get to this point,” Ott said. “And, we are not done — these plans are evolving and are not finalized.”
Effects on Flagstaff, Coconino County
Professors and community members are concerned the existing plans to reopen NAU to in-person instruction will have significant impacts on the community.
“NAU is a big university in a small town,” said Raymond Michalowski, a regents’ professor in the department of criminology.
With one hospital and an otherwise small population, the local community simply does not have the infrastructure to handle the influx of community spread that’s likely with welcoming so many students back to campus, he said.
Vice Mayor of Flagstaff Adam Shimoni said the university’s plans to reopen are “absolutely absurd” given the current circumstances of COVID-19 in Arizona.
“Those students are a part of our community,” he said. “What happens when they are off campus? What happens when they go out socializing?”
The City Council did not have an opportunity to weigh in on the university’s plans as Shimoni had hoped to do before it went on break, he said.
“We could have been a voice for the people in our community,” he said, adding that many are deeply concerned about schools reopening on all levels.
A spokesperson for Coconino County Health and Human Services said the department was not involved in planning the school’s re-opening, but has been available as a resource and staff have frequent conversations with school leadership.
The university says it has communicated its plans with county health officials, educational institutions and local governments. Administrators also cited communications with the CEO of Flagstaff Hospital that have been “positive and 100% behind NAU opening” in a July 6 meeting with the Faculty Senate, according to the meeting notes obtained by The Arizona Republic.
But Shimoni said his efforts to weigh in on the university’s plans “did not go very far,” so he contacted the Arizona Board of Regents to emphasize his concerns.
As the rates of infection increase across the state, Shimoni said reopening a college campus in a town like Flagstaff poses a significant risk to public health.
“To add an additional layer of community spread to our population right now just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
‘We feel like a devalued constituency’
Faculty say they know the university is facing pressures from all sides, which affect the decision of whether to reopen campus.
“I’m very sympathetic to the fact that university administrators serve multiple masters,” Michalowski, a longtime professor, said listing students, costs, state and national politicians to name a few. “But we feel like we are a devalued constituency.”
“We love being with our students, so when faculty say they’re hesitant to go back into the classroom this fall, the vast majority are very sad to say so,” he said.
The university says communication and input from all constituent groups has been one of the school’s highest priorities throughout the planning process, but Michalowski and others say they feel misunderstood and undervalued.
Stephen Shuster, who has worked at the university for 30 years, said it’s a tenuous position that would look different if the university hadn’t been stripped of a large chunk of its funding by the state leaders and not seen enrollment drops in recent years.
“The university shouldn’t have to make the decision between their own finances and the health of students and faculty and the surrounding community,” he said.
Theimer has won numerous teaching awards throughout his career. He was recognized with an award for outstanding teaching from the American Society of Mammalogists earlier this month. He feels he’s earned trust and respect from decades of students.
But all of that means nothing if he isn’t honest about his concerns now, he said.
“I’m not trying to demonize anybody,” Theimer said. “My question is — is it worth taking the risk? And I think that’s where we come down on different ends.”
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