This month, approximately 20,000 NAU students are slated to return to campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 24, NAU President Rita Cheng announced a two-week delay to in-person instruction, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 31. While safety measures are in place and students have the option whether or not to return to face-to-face courses, faculty members have not been provided that same choice. 

Faculty put concerns on display

A rainy day on the lawn of Flagstaff City Hall quickly transformed into an impassioned display as faculty gathered to unify against the planned reopening this fall. The overcast skies warned of an ensuing summer monsoon, much like the protesters warned of the consequences of a return to campus.

For many faculty members, such as associate professor of mathematics and statistics Jeff Hovermill, the protest was an opportunity to push back against “unilateral” decision-making from the university’s administration. Hovermill, who protested with his partner and young children, referred to the protest as “one of the few ways faculty feel their voice can be heard,” citing a lack of shared governance from NAU President Rita Cheng.

It is in the best interest of faculty and students alike to remain off campus and prioritize remote learning, Hovermill said. However, if the decision remains to return to in-person instruction, faculty members deserve to have a choice.

“NAU is not giving faculty a choice on how they would like to deliver the courses [remotely or in-person],” Hovermill said. “It’s a tough position to choose between: exposing ourselves every day for our students, or choosing the health of our families.”

Faculty at NAU still have not been given this choice, said faculty senate president Gioia Woods. Many faculty protesters were quick to compare NAU to UA, where the administration has allowed individual professors to decide their preferred mode of instruction amid the pandemic.

Professor of biological sciences Thad Theimer shared Hovermill’s position that the university is putting its members at risk by reopening. Theimer was invited by organizers to deliver a speech at the protest, where he drew from his expertise in wildlife management to argue against reopening.

When faced with a disease outbreak in wildlife, there are situations that should be avoided, said Theimer. Animals should not be moved around in the landscape and population density should not be increased.

“As a wildlife biologist [NAU’s plan to return to campus] really troubled me,” Theimer said. “Moving people around and concentrating is the opposite thing you want to do during a pandemic.”

After gathering his thoughts on the scheduled reopening, Theimer said he reached out to his students to survey their plans for the semester. Eventually, Theimer realized there were limitations on how he could speak to his students. He questioned the dean of his college on what exactly his limitations were.

“Am I going to get fired if I tell my students the truth?” Theimer asked. His answer was met with uncertainty — Theimer said he was told “I don’t know.”

Like many faculty, Theimer still doesn’t know how to voice his concerns appropriately in compliance with the university. What he does know is that he does not want to lie to his students, a dilemma which motivated him to speak out.

Theimer said the pandemic has resulted in two bad options for faculty members: Instructors can either refuse to teach in-person and risk their jobs, or follow university guidelines and put themselves at risk. His primary request is that the administration provides the option for faculty to choose their mode of instruction.

“I know that if these plans are going to work, they need to be incredibly detailed,” Theimer said. “I look at the critical details and I just don’t see them working.”

While many faculty members have successfully distanced themselves from in-person instruction without risking their jobs, Theimer said the channels to do so are inadequate. Many faculty feel their options are at the mercy of the university’s deans or their ability to have their requests granted through NAU Disability Resources.

Many faculty members have voiced similar concerns, Woods said, concerning both the difficulty of being granted permission to teach remotely and with NAUFlex — a program designed for the Flagstaff Mountain Campus to allow students to choose their modality of learning.

Professors have put “tremendous effort” into preparing courses to align with NAUFlex guidelines — some even putting research and other academic ventures on pause, said Woods. Whether students choose to complete courses in-person or remotely, Woods said the opportunity for engagement provided by NAUFlex extends far beyond traditional online courses.

Radical love and getting into good trouble

Robert Schehr, professor of criminology and criminal justice, teaches out of radical love — for his students, coworkers and staff around him — and has been for nearly 30 years. Radical love is to do the right thing despite the consequences, to get into “good trouble” if one must. Schehr credited these ideas to late congressman John Lewis, whose funeral was held July 30 at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in Atlanta. To Schehr and many other faculty members, now is the time to get into good trouble.

Despite the recent announcement of a two-week delay to in-person instruction, many faculty demands have not been addressed. Schehr called the delay a “minor victory.”  He said that although professors want to be back in the classroom, it is not the safest option right now. Given these health concerns, faculty want one thing: The right to choose their method of teaching­­ — to not be mandated into the classroom despite growing risk.

Schehr wrote in the Arizona Daily Sun’’s “Coconino Voices” column alongside his department colleague Raymond Michalowski, the same level of concern expressed for students’ well-being should be applied to faculty, but sadly has not. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines state university employees have the “right not to work.” Schehr and Michalowski noted this right “is a reasonable response to the real fears held by university faculty with regard to possible infection.”

“What this means is that there needs to be available to faculty methods of course delivery that promote the greatest health and safety to all university employees and students, while assuring high quality pedagogy,” Schehr and Michalowski wrote. “A reasonable accommodation must provide faculty who feel they are at particular risk from developing serious medical complications from contracting COVID-19 to have requests that their assignments be modified to minimize contact with potentially infected persons granted.”

Although faculty were a part of many discussions, the recent decision to integrate the NAUFlex model was made against faculty objections, Schehr said. According to an NAU Shared Governance document, faculty have a right to decide, or at least have a say, in both curriculum and methods of instruction.

“It is a part of the conditions of faculty service that we have control over our method of course delivery,” Schehr said. “When NAU’s president and her cabinet decided to select NAUFlex, that was over the opposition of faculty — we were not included in that conversation … This has been commonplace on this campus. They have not engaged faculty at all, in a real dialogical way.”

Beyond wanting to be included in the decisions that have been made by administrators, Schehr said faculty simply want to do what is right for their students and colleagues. Faculty continue to push back and demand the choice of their modality.

“We have thought through how to work you through a process,” Schehr said. “To make you confused, deconstruct and then rebuild. It’s hard for me to do that this way. So, what I’m trying to say is, all of us want to be back. This is not about us not wanting to do our jobs. I want to do it the way we were trained to. We cannot right now, it’s not safe. It’s irresponsible, it’s imprudent. So, through radical love, we push back.”

Cheng commits to offering in-person classes

Over the summer months, plans for the fall semester changed quickly and unpredictably, along with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the forefront of these difficult decisions was President Rita Cheng, who was tasked with guiding the university through an unprecedented financial crisis while still providing a safe and meaningful education.

During a phone interview with The Lumberjack’s news team on July 29, Cheng discussed the pandemic and its influences on the NAU community. One recurring topic was the safety of faculty, staff and students given face-to-face instruction, which was recently rescheduled to start Aug. 31.

“We have been following all the CDC guidelines and best practices that our peer institutions across the country are adopting, including de-densifying the classrooms,” Cheng said. “There’s a lot of precautions that we’ve put in place, and they’re consistent with what other universities are doing as well.”

Part of the administration’s response to an in-person return was developing NAUFlex, which was described in an email from Cheng  as a “fully immersive classroom experience” that allows students to participate remotely. With safety as the top priority, the email explained that personal and quality educations are still attainable.

Through this infrastructure, Cheng said classrooms will utilize physical distancing by having significantly fewer occupants. Additionally, all students are required to wear face masks or face coverings during class and around campus, while NAU has also evaluated air handling systems to ensure proper ventilation.

After considering the potential conflict between keeping the community safe and hosting in-person classes, Cheng said there is no disconnect. The university’s mission is to provide an education, she added, which should still happen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is no dichotomy here,” Cheng said. “We are adopting the best practices for health and safety in order to keep our students progressing toward their graduation. These are difficult times, but it is also important that we not lose the purpose of NAU’s existence.”

Despite the university’s commitment to offering in-person classes, faculty and staff held protests around the Flagstaff area, specifically advocating for online instruction. 

Cheng said one component of the decision to delay in-person instruction was that COVID-19 cases have slowed around the state in recent weeks, which the Arizona Department of Health Services confirmed online under its daily case recordings. By the time in-person classes start, Cheng said the pandemic could become more manageable following five weeks of declining figures.

“I do think it’s responsive to what we’re seeing in the environment,” Cheng said, regarding the delay of face-to-face instruction. “Arizona’s cases spiked in July, and in the last two weeks, we’ve seen the number of cases go down.”

In terms of keeping faculty and staff safe, Cheng said the university has developed the appropriate precautions, which helped its employees become “well-protected.” Accommodations are also offered for those at high risk — whether through preexisting health conditions or advancing age — and individuals can apply at Disability Resources.

Furthermore, every staff member’s accommodations could be different. Certain faculty may need to teach from their offices, Cheng added, while others could utilize face shields, smaller class sizes or extra precautions.

“There’s a lot of things we can do for accommodation, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all,” Cheng said.

As for the safety and security of Flagstaff residents, NAU has started to train and educate student leaders regarding various health protections, which include practicing hygiene, keeping distance, wearing masks and monitoring symptoms. In order to keep the city healthy, Cheng said various medical professionals informed her that these techniques are critical.

“There’s a risk in, and through, the community everywhere you go,” Cheng said. “The virus is with us, and we have to manage our lives knowing it will be with us for quite a while.”

For students who are living on campus, the university recommended getting tested at least 10 days before their move-in date — but also after July 24 — which would likely provide the time needed to return results. Once residents have settled into dormitories and campus life, Cheng said NAU’s testing approach will be “multi-pronged.”

One option for receiving tests is through Campus Health Services, Cheng explained, while the university has partnered with Department of Biological Sciences professor Paul Keim, ASU and the Translational Genomics Research Institute to administer these services. From Aug. 10 to 23, tests will also be offered daily at the University Union Fieldhouse, which will operate from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and be available for the general public. Testing is free because it is provided by the federal government, according to an email from Paulina Swiatkowski, the NAU School of Communication’s assistant director of operations and scheduling.

After this initial period of testing concludes, students who are presenting symptoms can also go to Sonora Quest Laboratories. According to the laboratory’s website, tests are available Monday through Friday from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and most are reported within two or three days. COVID-19 antibody tests are also provided, and those results are returned within 24 hours.

As for contact tracing, Cheng said students are encouraged to download COVIDWatch, a mobile app planned to be made available by the start of the semester. The app is a shared initiative between Google and Apple to monitor the spread of coronavirus through cellular technology.

According to the COVIDWatch website, users can “send anonymous exposure alerts to protect the community without sharing any personal information,” potentially following the disease’s transmission between asymptomatic carriers. 

Students will be alerted if they spent over 15 minutes within six feet of someone who tested positive, as long as both sides have the software downloaded and running. Through this system, anyone previously within close proximity to a COVID-19 carrier — whether in a residence hall, classroom or social circle — will be alerted.

Separate from this testing infrastructure, Cheng said faculty, staff and students will be protected by a mandatory health check app for anyone who enters campus each morning. Students will also receive health kits, which include two masks, hand sanitizer, a thermometer and a list of symptoms.

Younger demographics typically have a lower rate of COVID-related hospitalizations, Cheng added, which could shield Flagstaff Medical Center from filling with infected students. However, a scientific update from the Center for Health Equity Research at NAU reported that as of July 5, a significant portion of the confirmed cases in Arizona came from young adults.

“[A reported] 49% of the cases in Coconino and the entire state were 20-44 years old and 11% of the cases Coconino and the entire state were less than 20 years old,” the report stated (the most recent report can be found here).

While cases in younger people may not require medical treatment nor hospitalization, they are still potential vectors of transmission to other populations. According to The Washington Post, infection patterns show an “emerging trend” of young people spreading COVID-19 to older family members. Even though the disease is largely unpredictable, its contagion within intergenerational households could certainly be a problem.

As the university works to follow health and safety guidelines, Cheng said administrators are collaborating with local health officials, housing partners, grocery stores and restaurants off campus. One consideration is organizing shopping hours just for students, which could provide further separation between the NAU community and Flagstaff residents. Similarly, Cheng said communicating with restaurants ensures that proper social distancing and appropriate capacities are observed.

If students disobey any rules surrounding mask-wearing, social distancing or other COVID-19 precautions, Cheng said the Student Code of Conduct will serve as a platform for education or discipline. These regulations apply both on and off campus, she added, and the university is prepared to enforce them.

Although students hold some responsibility for protecting themselves and others amid the pandemic, a recent article in The Atlantic argued that universities are even more accountable.

“College students will need to adapt their behaviors for universities to function in the fall, but students are not solely — or even primarily — responsible for keeping campuses safe,” the article read.

Reporters Julia Marcus and Jessica Gold also wrote that students will be reluctant to share information with contact tracers if it could potentially cause personal trouble. This hesitation could generate inconsistencies and dangers as medical workers attempt to monitor COVID-19, especially in dense college communities.

Regardless of the problems associated with on-campus living, most students can enroll in NAUFlex, which allows for fully-remote coursework after consulting with advisers. However, Cheng said the university’s faculty, chairs and deans created a list of classes that require face-to-face instruction and cannot utilize online attendance. For these specific studies, students can participate on campus or change their schedules to allow for online attendance.

When asked about NAU’s plans to charge full tuition and fees for the upcoming semester, Cheng said most regular services will still be available to students — whether in person or online. For example, the Health and Learning Center will feature recreational activities, health services, counseling appointments, telehealth practices and other operations running under official guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cheng said the $275 health and recreation fee associated with the fall semester will provide funding for these services and the facilities themselves, which would make it “very difficult” to cancel.

According to an article published by CNBC, 93% of college students surveyed said tuition should be lowered if classes are based online. For those who attend distinguished institutions, such as the Ivy League schools, paying full tuition for remote attendance can carry significant costs.

“Prestigious schools such as Harvard University have committed to holding all of their classes online next semester and according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 46% of colleges plan to hold some, or all, of their classes online,” the article read. “While many students have agreed that social distancing is vital, many have also raised concerns that they are still paying full tuition for what is now an online education.”

Despite these concerns, neither NAU, ASU nor UA have announced plans to lower tuition accordingly. According to NAU’s website, in-state students will pay $11,896 in tuition and fees for the 2020-2021 school year, while their out-of-state counterparts will owe $26,642.

Although the fall semester is ending early — before Thanksgiving — NAU has not currently adjusted the dates for this spring. However, Cheng said the university is actively and attentively monitoring the situation, even if it is too early to make official announcements.

“What I’ve learned with the coronavirus is never say you won’t have a different decision,” Cheng said.

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