Northern Arizona University announced on Friday that it is postponing its first day of in-person classes to Aug. 31, although classes will continue to start remotely on Aug. 12.
NAU President Rita Cheng said the university made the decision to provide more time and space for students to safely move into campus, Cheng said. The decision was announced through a campuswide email sent out Friday afternoon. The email detailed several requirements for students, faculty and staff before coming to NAU or returning to work.
Additionally, Cheng said giving an extra two weeks to wait for in-person instruction allows the university to see if the county’s downward trend in positive cases continues. Cheng also hopes if the virus eases up across the state over the next two weeks, faculty and staff might feel more comfortable returning to work.
“This is a very stressful time to think about coming back into a face-to-face environment,” Cheng told the Arizona Daily Sun. “What we want to do is keep our in-person class sizes very small … and keep social distancing in classrooms so that everyone is wearing a mask to reduce the risk of transmission of this awful infection.”
The plan calls for increased responsibilities for students coming to NAU.
Those include having students isolate by themselves or with their family 10 days before traveling to Flagstaff, being tested before traveling and conducting a health check every day before attending school. The health checks will be done through the NAU Health Check app that will be released in early August. Masks and cloth face coverings will be required in all buildings and social distancing will be mandatory on campus.
Any student who has not been tested before arriving on campus will be required to isolate and wait for results from university testing resources.
“We’re saying why don’t you take care of this before you come so you don’t run the risk of testing positive in the first two weeks here in Flagstaff?” Cheng said.
Faculty and staff have been asked to complete training on how to return to work safely, take antibody testing that is available through a University of Arizona partnership, and refer to the “Jacks are Back” website (https://nau.edu/jacks-are-back) for more updated information about health and safety precautions. During the school year, they will also be asked to conduct daily self-health screenings.
Additionally, university authorities said they would push for expanding testing and contract tracing capability. The university will also provide testing throughout the academic year, and provide healthcare kits in early August with two reusable masks and hand sanitizer.
Cheng noted the university’s plan is built to change and account for new information, and hopes their teaching system will allow students to learn remotely or in person at any given time and emphasize safety. Focusing on the remote learning system NAU Flex, Cheng believed the university could make the switch work.
“If we see that things are going in the wrong direction, we can pull back on in-person [classes] with NAU Flex,” Cheng said.
Cheng said the university consulted with multiple stakeholders and scientific and medical professionals at NAU and Flagstaff Medical Center before making its recent decision. Among those was the Center for Health Equity Research, which released an update earlier this month that advised against reinstating in-person operations prior to the spring 2021 semester.
“If you come to work sick, and your sickness happens to be coronavirus, [it] can really infect a lot of people," Cheng said. "We want to make sure students understand if they can stay healthy, the whole campus can stay healthy."
County, state update
Coconino County added 26 new cases and zero deaths in Friday's report, bringing its totals to 2,704 positive cases and 108 deaths. The county's cases have generally been on a downward trend since a spike in the final two weeks of June.
Arizona health officials reported 89 additional deaths from the coronavirus Friday as a rise in fatalities that began early in July shows no sign of easing.
The state Health Services Department said the new deaths bring the statewide tally since the first was reported in March to 3,142. The state reported 3,349 new cases, putting total confirmed cases at 156,301.
Hospitalizations for the virus have dropped significantly in the past two weeks, with 2,844 people being treated as of Thursday. That's down from the July 13 peak of 3,517 people. The number of people being cared for in intensive care units has also fallen significantly.
The decline was the first sustained drop in new cases since Gov. Doug Ducey imposed orders a month ago closing gyms, nightclubs and bars and face-mask orders issued by local governments started to appear. The Republican said Thursday he would extend those closure orders indefinitely.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.