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Coconino Voices: In high stakes town hall, Northern Arizona University missed chance to listen and respond

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Hitting The Books

Students were already deep into their studies at the Cline Library on the first day of the spring semester at Northern Arizona University Monday.

The virtual town hall NAU hosted last Thursday about reopening as cases of omicron spike in our community was a missed opportunity to acknowledge the collective trauma the pandemic has been for so many of us, and the risks in-person instruction poses to vulnerable people and to our health care system.

The event was offered on YouTube Live with a chat feature. After presentations by local infectious disease experts Dr. David Engelthaler (TGen North) and Dr. Paul Keim (NAU), university administrators, relying on prepared scripts, explained policies planned for the 2022 spring semester. The term town hall suggests a level of engagement we didn't see, and disenfranchised students concerned about in-person instruction took to the chat with questions and frustrations.

As they should. NAU's current policies — in-person instruction, residential life, with masks required in some areas (but no N95s/KN95s required or distributed to students) — will likely expose them to a novel virus with documented but largely unknown long-term effects. In doing so, it may also expose their families, elders and other loved ones.

Despite some language about being flexible to change course "should the need arise," the message was delivered in a friendly, institutional tone, sent from a seemingly different world than we — the students, staff, and faculty in the chat — have been living in:

A world in which one of every 300 Arizonans have died from COVID. A world in which nearly one million people in the US have died from COVID, and new cases are mounting so fast graph-makers have had to extend the y-axis.

We’ve been living in a world in which the state has transferred all risk calculus to the individual but failed to shore up the social safety net with measures we know would work to protect people and curtail transmission: universal indoor masking with N95s/KN95s, universal paid sick leave, adequate testing infrastructure, and robust social services for essential workers, at-risk communities, and COVID-positive people.

It would mean a great deal to hear our university acknowledge some of this. To validate what a terrifying, frustrating, draining two years this has been. To note that many in our NAU community have lost friends and family to COVID.

And to acknowledge the real danger that in-person instruction without universal respirators and testing poses to vulnerable people, including immunocompromised individuals, elders, and young children — us, and the people we live with and go home to. I understand that these policies are made in complex matrices of tough options, and we don't know how this danger factored into the policies that were communicated last Thursday. But when that risk goes unnamed, it is easy to feel like these lives and concerns were undervalued in the decision process.

It has been a fend-for-yourself pandemic in Arizona since May 2020, except that’s not how airborne viruses work — so many people have done everything to keep themselves and their family safe and it still isn’t enough. Individual choice can’t protect us against omicron. Policies rooted in individual action have failed.

I encourage NAU to leverage the live format next time and enact responsive listening. It would be meaningful to hear one of the speakers stop reading from the script and say: “I see some of you are angry and concerned. Let's take some of your questions now.” Hearing concerns doesn't mean correcting course, necessarily, but it is critical to fostering trust and a sense of belonging.

At minimum, we deserve to better understand how this decision was made. How were the risks of mass illness and personal loss weighed, and what they were weighed against? In narrating that decision, NAU would show compassion for its community — on and beyond campus — and demonstrate that it takes seriously our community’s concerns. That didn’t happen last week. People will get sick. But there is still time to listen and to tell a different story.

Kate Petersen is a writer who works at Northern Arizona University.


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