ABOR meeting: COVID response

NAU President Rita Cheng talks about NAU welcome week at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting, Sept. 19, 2019.

Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) chair Larry Penley expressed his support for President Rita Cheng and NAU’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic. These remarks came during ABOR’s three-day meeting, which wrapped up Friday and featured presentations from a variety of students and administrators around Arizona’s public universities. 

“This has not been an easy task for any of us, but making sure NAU is available, open and providing a technologically-driven, safe and healthy environment has been very important,” Penley said. “You and your team have done a great job of making that happen.” 

The majority of Cheng’s comments focused on the university’s health and safety precautions amid COVID-19, including the rapid testing surge from Aug. 10 to 30. According to her slideshow, 3,016 students, faculty, staff and Flagstaff community members took tests, which were distributed at the University Union Fieldhouse, between these dates. 

An infographic from Cheng’s presentation showed the peak of NAU’s infections between Sept. 14 and 19, when 2,988 tests were conducted and 277 were returned as positive. These figures demonstrate a positivity rate of 9.3%, which was well above the World Health Organization’s recommended average of 5%. In contrast, the university confirmed another 91 positives following 1,575 tests between Sept. 28 and 30, lowering the positivity rate to 5.8%

“Obviously with the high volume of tests, we have raised the raw number of positives in the community,” Cheng said. “However, the positivity rate on campus is lower than what the county is seeing in other locations for testing.” 

She also cited the university’s partnerships with Northern Arizona Healthcare, the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County, which helped to achieve “open communication” and “cohesive planning efforts” for the community’s overall health. 

Once surge testing finished in September, NAU started mitigation testing in collaboration with ASU. Cheng emphasized that this partnership — and the accompanying saliva-based results — were “critical,” especially because 2,000 students and employees are randomly selected each week for testing. Through these mandatory samples, scheduled appointments and walk-in attendees, she said 2% of the campus community is tested daily. 

Another aspect of the university’s response was designated quarantine spaces, which are spread throughout different parts of campus and utilized for two-week increments. Students who test positive for COVID-19 — or were potentially exposed to the virus — are assigned to these areas to limit further transmission. 

“On-campus housing is currently at 74.3% capacity, which has allowed us to find isolation and quarantine spaces to set aside in the campus community,” Cheng said. “We have an arrangement with Drury hotels, and we have briefly used a few of these overnight capacities before students could be moved into campus isolation space.” 

Regent Karrin Taylor Robson said of Cheng and her team’s work during the pandemic, “NAU has done a great job under the circumstances.” 

ASU and President Michael Crow 

Although Crow discussed the university’s response to COVID-19, he devoted more attention toward future developments. He said the institutional rate of innovation is “accelerating,” and that faculty and staff are “relentlessly engaged” in helping students learn. 

“Fall 2020 is the last semester for ASU as an archaic, stone-age institution,” Crow said. “We are, by the opening of the spring semester of 2021, going to be the most advanced teaching and learning platform that humans have ever built — on any front whatsoever.” 

This semester, Crow said 127,500 students are enrolled between the university’s four campuses and online instructional modes. A total of 12,000 students live in residence halls, while another 10,000 participate in remote instruction for the first time. According to ASU’s website, enrollment increased by 7.6% since fall 2019, and over 35% of all undergraduates are first-generation students.  

He also addressed ASU’s freshmen retention rates, which remained similar amid the pandemic. 

“We might be down a little bit,” Crow said. “But that’s a tremendous achievement of our faculty and staff in terms of being able to keep students on track of their degrees while the world around them is unbelievably complicated.”

UA and President Robert Robbins

NAU’s presentation focused on student, faculty and administrative responses to COVID-19, ASU’s concentrated on the future of college educations and UA’s was based on strategies for mitigating the health crisis. Robbins’ experience includes a medical degree from the University of Mississippi, postdoctoral research at Columbia University and cardiothoracic training at Stanford University, which Chair Penley said was helpful in navigating through the pandemic. 

Although nasal swabs and saliva-based tests are important, Robbins said antibody testing can be used to track previous cases and determine asymptomatic patients. COVID-19 remains a novel strain of the coronavirus, and distributing these antibody tests could provide further understanding. 

“You can’t trace, and you can’t treat if you don’t know who’s positive,” Robbins said. 

UA’s coronavirus dashboard shows 39,313 tests were administered between Aug. 4 and Sept. 30 with 2,342 confirmed cases and an overall positivity rate of 6%. However, Robbins said the peak positivity rate was “completely unacceptable” at nearly 20%, although this number eventually declined. As the university enters week seven of fall instruction, he expressed thankfulness for COVID-19 slowing and concern that it could suddenly spread again. 

ABOR will reconvene for another round of meetings in November with the locations currently undetermined.