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Northern Arizona University discusses omicron response in virtual town hall

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First Day of Classes

Junior Anais Nevarez works on her laptop between classes in the Science and Health building at Northern Arizona University in this file photo from 2021.

In preparation for its spring semester, which starts Monday, Northern Arizona University hosted a virtual town hall to discuss how omicron would affect its plans. As with Flagstaff K-12 schools, the university has said it will be continuing its in-person learning, with minimal changes to its mitigation plan.

“This past fall, we were successful in navigating the delta wave that emerged over the summer. We’re prepared, optimistic and ready to continue this great work in the spring,” Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Karen Pugliesi said.

Its previous town halls were in August, with a focus on how the delta variant might affect the fall semester. As with those, TGen North director David Engelthaler and executive director of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute Paul Keim began the meeting Thursday by describing the current understanding of the omicron variant as well as local COVID metrics.

According to the presentation, Arizona is likely still toward the beginning of its omicron surge. Based on data from the east coast, which is a little later in its cycle, the expectation was that cases would continue to rise, at least in the near future.

NAU’s pandemic response as described in the town hall was, overall similar to its approach during the fall semester.

The university was encouraging students and employees to re-upload their proof of vaccination after getting a booster, though it is not required. About 70% of employees had verified their vaccination at the time of the event.

Masks will be required in common areas in all on-campus buildings and strongly encouraged at events. The university will be providing branded cloth masks with filters to its students and staff in addition to having disposable options, including KN95, throughout campus.

While the KN95 masks were the most effective at preventing the spread of disease, Engelthaler said the light blue procedure masks (about half as effective) and homemade or cloth masks did still provide some level of protection.

“That’s something we can all do as we’re trying to function in group settings and in classrooms as this omicron wave rolls across,” he said. “It’s quite likely if you wear a mask you will still get exposed, but if you’re not wearing a mask, you absolutely will be exposed.”

Keim encouraged people to remain at home when experiencing symptoms, regardless of their cause.

“If you have symptoms, stay home; it doesn't matter if you have COVID, influenza or the common cold, you don't want to give that to your coworkers,” he said.

The university is also asking students, faculty and staff to test for COVID before returning to campus, even if they are not experiencing symptoms. If testing is limited where they currently are, they are asked to test at NAU. On campus, the Fieldhouse offers PCR testing and the campus health center has rapid antigen testing.

Even though those CDC guidelines don’t specify a need to test negative before leaving quarantine, Keim recommended them whenever possible.

NAU will be continuing its voluntary pooled mitigation testing program in the spring semester, calling between 2,500 and 3,000 students, faculty and staff on a weekly basis.

“Getting tested proactively and frequently is one of the best mitigation measures we have and can really allow all of us to enjoy the richness of being on campus in person with a lot less stress,” Interim Vice President Margot Saltonstall said.

Anyone testing positive is asked to follow the CDC quarantine guidance. NAU will be providing a “dedicated residence space” and care manager teams to support students with positive test results.

“We also recognize that there will be positive cases, and we know our faculty are prepared to support students so they can continue making progress in their academic programs, even if they cannot attend class. We thank you for everything that you did this last semester to make that possible and know that you'll be prepared to do that this coming spring,” Pugliesi said.

Employees who test positive will also be expected to follow CDC guidance and “plan an appropriate way to promote student learning.” An announcement on NAU’s new workforce plans earlier that day had included options for flexible work that can be utilized in these situations.

When asked whether students who felt unsafe returning to campus had the option to use NAUFlex for remote learning, Pugliesi said that there were no plans at the time to pivot fully to the platform, but that they were monitoring the situation and were prepared to adapt if needed.

She encouraged students to speak with their academic advisor about options for different formats.

“Our faculty are well-versed in how to employ the technologies that we do have in place to be adaptive and that includes being adaptive to support students who are not able to come to class and need to be supported to continue their academic progress as well as situations in which maybe a faculty member may not be able to be engaged in the classroom themselves,” she said. “… We, at this point, want to sustain [an in-person] learning experience for our students using all the tools we have to be adaptive to the situation. We recognize that individuals are different and have their different wants and needs, and we're here to be as flexible as we can be within our mission to support that.”

NAU is also planning to have spring break this year as well as an in-person spring commencement. More details would be communicated to students as they became known.

When asked about the trigger point for a move to online learning, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Josh Mackey said those decisions would be based on guidance from scientific and health experts rather than specific numbers.

“There's not a hard set point that well use in terms of making decisions or changing directions. As you've heard the virus counts and the positivity is really kind of evolving in what it means and how we will use it, so we will definitely use it, we don't have a hard set point for how we’ll make those changes. But as we said all along, well continue to monitor these things, continue to consult with experts and, if we need to, we stand ready to pivot. We've done this all before and we can do it again if the conditions call for it,” he said.

Details of NAU’s current COVID response can be found at nau.edu/legacy/jacks-are-back/.

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