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NAU reopens campus for in-person classes
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NAU reopens campus for in-person classes

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Northern Arizona University reopened its Flagstaff campus Monday for in-person learning, three weeks after beginning the semester online.

By the late morning, parking lots throughout campus were nearly full as students, most of them sporting face masks, made their way back to the university’s academic buildings for the first time since their closure in March to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As of Monday, 29,594 students are enrolled at NAU across all its campuses, with more than 6,000 living in NAU-owned residence halls.

“I feel pretty comfortable with going back to classes with COVID and everything,” said Michael Grier, a junior electrical engineering major, just before his first in-person class.

After several weeks of attending his classes virtually from the desk in his bedroom, Grier said he was excited for the return to campus.

“I study better when I’m surrounded by the environment because I get distracted pretty easily,” he said. “I locked myself in my room [for online classes], but you get kind of stir crazy because you’re in there all day.”

Carmel Gusmano’s morning philosophy class was “fairly normal,” the freshman psychological sciences major said. The class had been split in thirds, with groups of students attending in-person on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. About half of Gusmano’s classes are using in-person instruction.

“It was pretty interactive, there wasn’t really any trouble or anything like that,” Gusmano said, noting that her professor paused throughout the lecture to take questions from students who were attending class both online and via Zoom, and was considering possibly rotating this schedule so one group would not have to come in on Friday mornings throughout the entire semester.

Although she admitted it takes only a moment to do a self-administered daily health screening through the NAU Healthcheck app, Gusmano said she wished the university would send out more frequent notifications because she has been forgetting to complete it.

Emma Gasior, a sophomore communications major, was especially animated about her return to class Monday, momentarily jumping in place with excitement as she made a coffee run in preparation for three in-person classes.

“I’m more of an in-person person, so when I’m being animated and in a group and trying to make connections with people, it just doesn’t work well over a computer screen. We just can’t catch each other’s vibes,” Gasior said.

Despite such student excitement, though, many faculty members remained concerned about the return to campus during this stage of the pandemic. Coconino County Health and Human Services reported an additional 55 cases last week, for a total of 3,205 local confirmed COVID-19 cases.

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“This is a big day. Many of us have been approaching this day with no small amount of trepidation,” said NAU Faculty Senate President Gioia Woods in a senate meeting Monday afternoon. “I’ve heard from dozens and dozens of [faculty] who are hesitant to return to the classroom face-to-face, not because you are uncooperative or wish to harm students as some have suggested, but because you as faculty have the most contact with students.”

On Sunday, the University Union of Northern Arizona (UUNA), which represents faculty, staff and graduate student employees, released its own statement calling for NAU administrators to halt plans to reopen campus and provide accurate COVID-19 case numbers for those who live and work on campus.

UUNA had released a similar statement in early July as COVID-19 cases spiked throughout the state. Its latest letter noted instances of outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus, off-campus events with hundreds of unmasked students, and mixed messages about mask wearing and other safety policies from administrators.

“Moving forward as NAU Administration has currently planned will have catastrophic consequences for the health of everyone connected to NAU — students, their families, faculty, staff, and all of the communities of which we are a part. We must do better,” the letter read, echoing the July statement.

COVID-19 on campus

NAU currently has four students who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are in isolation on campus. This is the same number as last week, but with two entering isolation and two leaving, NAU President Rita Cheng explained in the faculty senate meeting Monday. The university has had 23 cumulative positive cases since the beginning of the pandemic, mostly among its employees.

Cheng said this week the university will be phasing in its mandatory mitigation testing, issuing 2,500 saliva-based COVID-19 tests each week to random faculty, staff and students as well as to voluntary community members. More than 3,000 individuals — including Flagstaff community members — were tested for COVID-19 this month during surge testing at the University Fieldhouse. Fewer than 50 tested positive.

Cheng said NAU is still formalizing contact tracing efforts with Coconino County, but currently receives data for employees and students who live off campus only if they note an affiliation with NAU during their work with county contract tracers.

“Our data collection ability is not as robust as I’d like it to be but we’re working on it and I do believe that we’ll get there eventually,” Cheng said.

Freshman Hunter Moore, an ecology and evolutionary biology major, explained she is concerned about the spread of COVID-19 after hearing about various off-campus parties that have occurred since students returned to Flagstaff.

“With the party, I don’t want to be that person, but at the same time, if I hear about it, I’m probably going to just snitch because I paid way too much money to be here on campus to be sent home within a week,” Moore said. “My concern is people being dumb and not being as safe as they should be. I’m also really worried about staff. They’re the most at risk right now because they’re having to see so many people in a day. I do not envy the president of the university for having to make all these decisions.”

Cheng said the university is working with the City of Flagstaff to reinforce student behaviors both on and off campus. A group of students has already been temporarily evicted from their residence halls and suspended from their classes — both in-person and online — for five days.

“These are students whose behavior would increase our infection rate … and we’re not going to tolerate it,” she said, noting that university leaders are expecting additional such behaviors — as well as accompanying isolations and quarantines — because some individuals are not following the university’s COVID-19 policies.

“If we’re going to be doing 2,500 [COVID-19 saliva] tests per week, we are increasing the testing capacity on this campus far beyond anything in the community. So far we’ve had very low positive rates but even with a low positive rate, we will have tests that are positive and I want you to get ready for some additional positive tests,” Cheng told faculty. “That’s better than not knowing and better than letting things go unchecked.”

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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