Back in March, NAU transitioned to online classes as the threat of COVID-19 rose. In mid-March, Coconino County reported 22 cases and now has reached 2,339. Now that the threat is bigger than ever, transitioning back to in-person classes is putting students and faculty in danger, especially since Arizona has become a hot spot for the virus, according to ABC News.
Although NAU is implementing changes to stop the spread of the virus, more cases are all but assured because students will not likely social distance and may struggle to get tested. The university seems to only be delaying the inevitable.
In a statement from NAU President Rita Cheng, students and faculty are expected to do their part to ensure the safety of those around them. The statement read that it is required for students to be tested and have negative results before they return to campus, practice social distancing, wear masks and to use an upcoming smartphone app, COVIDWatch, that traces the virus. This app has not been launched yet.
Although there are many plans to bring students back safely, there seems to be few plans for how the university will run when students begin showing symptoms and eventually receive positive test results.
The university seems to be relying primarily on the integrity of students when it comes to social distancing.
Unacast is a company with a real-world graph and reference website that offers a Social Distancing Scoreboard, which grades states and counties on how well their residents are socially distancing. It does so by measuring nonessential traveling and how far people travel. Unacast has given Arizona a D- and Coconino County a D+.
It is hard to imagine these scores going up after thousands of students from across the state will return to campus while living in such close quarters, especially when nonessential businesses are open.
COVIDWatch could be potentially used to monitor the spread of the virus on campus. It does so by anonymously tracking people who are in contact with a COVID-19 carrier and can also anonymously alert others when someone has tested positive.
Campus Health Services (CHS) will also be testing students when they come back to campus.
The CHS website says they are only testing asymptomatic people with limited time windows to be tested. That forces symptomatic people to find another place to get tested, which could be challenging for people who do have symptoms but do not have transportation, because they shouldn’t be using public transportation if they are sick.
The website also fails to acknowledge how long results may take to get back to a patient, which is concerning as the person who was tested could be unwittingly spreading the virus as they wait for results.
NAUFlex is another way the university is attempting to keep their students safe. This program allows students to alternate and choose between online and in-person classes to keep classroom attendance as low as possible.
However, there is still risk because students and staff are continuing to interact with one another and are still exposed to the virus.
NAU’s main reason for welcoming back students with open arms is, of course, revenue. According to the 2019 Annual Financial Report, NAU made about $35 million from residence life. The university would lose this money if they switched solely to online classes and students decided not to live on campus.
Although the pandemic has put life as we know it on pause, having access to education shouldn’t cost someone their life. It is possible to do another semester, or two, online because that is what we have already been doing since March.
Online learning and its effects may be inconvenient, but it is necessary to slow the spread of the virus and to ensure the health of thousands. Despite the steps taken by NAU to mitigate the spread of the virus, the risk of contraction and spread is still concerning.