As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, students worry about on-campus classes

On Monday, Arizona hit 100,000 total cases of the coronavirus

As cases of the coronavirus continue to surge in Arizona, surpassing 100,000 total cases on Monday, ASU's plans for the fall are the same: Students still have the option to return to campus and attend classes with their peers.

When the University announced its plans for the upcoming semester on April 30, Arizona had 7,648 cases; since then, cases have risen by over 90,000, with a total of 101,441 cases and 1,810 deaths as of Monday, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

ASU President Michael Crow has said in interviews and Zoom calls that the University will not allow the return of students in the fall if Arizona stays on its current trajectory. But with no official word on a change of plans for the semester, students have been left to determine if returning to campus or Arizona is safe for themselves. 

"I definitely feel like those of us who feel it is unsafe to come back to campus will be left in the dust," said Carly Golding, a senior majoring in justice studies.

READ MORE: ASU, NAU & UA presidents: Universities ready to go online if needed

In interviews with The State Press and in posts on social media, students have criticized the University for its lack of transparency and communication on what will happen this fall, especially given that there are thousands of people diagnosed with COVID-19 every day in Arizona. 

Other universities across the country have chosen a different path for the fall semester. The California State University system, which has 23 different schools, announced in May they will conduct no classes in-person next semester. On Monday, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences announced it will only allow 40% of its undergraduate student body to live on-campus and will operate classes remotely throughout the entire academic year.

Professors at other universities have written in The New York Times and The Washington Post that conducting classes and bringing students back to campus this fall is not safe and not realistic. 

The key for success? Compliance

Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association and a former director of ADHS, said it is “reasonable” for universities to begin planning for a return to campus and to develop a strong mitigation plan.

ASU’s plan is good, Humble said, but only “as long as you’ve got compliance.” 

If students return but take their mask and “throw it in a ditch on the way to Mill Avenue,”  the University’s plan will have accomplished little, he said.

READ MORE: Students gather on Mill Avenue during first days of dine-in services

Crow admitted that he cannot control what people decide to do off-campus, but in June he told the Arizona Board of Regents he is confident that the University can handle the return of students and faculty.

“What got us into this situation that we’re in was people engaging in foolish behavior in environments with zero mitigation,” Humble said. 

Since the majority of universities have been functioning remotely, they have not contributed to spikes in coronavirus cases. But, the on-campus return of thousands of students in the fall could cause surges in cases.

Additionally, college-aged people have accounted for a disproportionate rise in COVID-19 cases across the country, as they have frequented bars and night clubs that chose to reopen.

Students said they also have concerns about the spread of the virus if their peers do not follow the guidelines, ultimately choosing to put others at risk.

“I will do the right things and make the right choices,” said Patrick Hays, a senior studying material science and engineering. “I don’t have that same confidence with everyone else.”

For many, expecting all students to do the right thing is nothing more than naivety from the University. Over Fourth of July weekend, for example, students posted pictures and videos on social media of them partying unmasked. Some ventured to California, which also has surging cases of COVID-19.  

Golding said young adults have displayed  “so much risky behavior” over the last few months that even with a well done plan “there is still too much inherent risk because you can’t force everyone to take it seriously.”

Many are doubtful that a return to campus will prompt other students to begin taking the pandemic seriously after months of many choosing not to.

“People have already proven they will not take the necessary precautions,” Taylor Kennaugh, a senior studying justice studies, said. “ASU shouldn’t expect that their students will be any different.”

Without frequent communication, many unsure of what to expect

Amid a relatively unpredictable environment, a lack of clear direction and transparency has left many questioning if they should keep their lease for an apartment, or even move back to Tempe or Phoenix.

Students are also questioning how they will connect to Zoom meetings while living in areas with poor internet and limited privacy, amid other issues that arise from remote learning. 

More broadly, students have wondered if they should even return to ASU. 

Benji Miller, a mechanical engineering senior, said he hesitated for months to seriously look into housing for the fall because of the uncertainty. 

ASU has hosted multiple Zoom webinars to help answer questions students may have about the semester, “but not everyone can attend at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday” when students aren’t aware they are happening or can’t make them because of work, Hays said.

“The sessions are only an hour or two, so how do you address the concerns of 60 or 80 thousand students on all campuses, undergraduate and graduate, all in such a short time?,” he said.

That lack of clear communication has also frustrated employees. Rikki Tremblay, a graduate student and full-time instructor of communication studies courses at ASU, said in an email that she has attended more than five Zoom webinars about the fall, but she routinely left the meetings feeling frustrated.

“I stopped attending because they were both overwhelming emotionally and because the information kept changing or would contradict information from a different webinar,” she said.

Tremblay shares the concerns many students have about the health risks of returning, a concern that is amplified as someone high-risk for complications with the coronavirus.

In an ASU employee webinar on June 29, ASU Vice President and University Provost Mark Searle said faculty can request two forms that must be submitted to determine if they can teach remotely this fall. One form is for employees with health concerns, a second is for other reasons. 

Tremblay submitted her forms 10 days ago, but has yet to hear anything back, she said. The request form shows that faculty form the The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences have until July 8 to submit their request.

“As a student, I'm being told that I may attend fully remotely if I feel unsafe, but as an employee, I'm being told that it doesn't matter if I feel unsafe, I would have to disclose private medical information to HR to prove I had an underlying condition that made me high-risk,” Tremblay said in an email. “I love teaching, but I'm concerned about being asked to risk my life to do it in-person for this fall semester.”

Tremblay said she hopes the University will conduct classes through online means only, but said she will have to return to keep her income. 

"I will reluctantly return to campus to teach because I wouldn't want to lose my income, my health insurance, and my employee tuition waiver to finish my degree,” she said, but only if she is not approved to teach remotely.

How would remote learning work? 

When it comes to out of state students who are choosing to return to Arizona, many have said they plan to attend classes solely through ASU Sync and online courses if they are able to do so from their dorm room or apartment.

Crow said in an interview with The State Press in June that the University has invested millions into Zoom technology, and would invest millions more during the summer to prepare classes for the fall. 

Over the summer, ASU Sync training and webinars were created to help faculty prepare for the fall. The key to making online courses and ASU Sync work is the implementation, said Scotty Craig, an associate professor of human systems engineering at ASU who researches how to improve eLearning environments.

With the right training and implementation of good teaching practices — like breaking up lectures and content into smaller chunks and giving "presence" to the students who are attending through Zoom to allow for input — faculty can create a successful learning environment, Craig said.

Faculty training is good, Hays said, but does nothing to address other problems, like internet access. 

Hays, the material science and engineering senior, has had internet issues after moving back to his home, which is in a more rural part of Arizona, he said. At one point recently, he went nine days with no internet at all. 

Even with the University providing technology to students who face these problems, “there’s going to be students who get left behind,” Hays said.

Craig said it is important that the University address students' fears, adding that they should know that ASU cares and is listening to their concerns. 

What comes next is anyone's guess

Two months ago, it was reasonable to think ASU could return to full immersion classes in the fall, Miller said. 

But now, Gov. Doug Ducey's response, which has been criticized by health professionals, and the “unrestrained exponential growth of coronavirus cases,” has made that once reasonable plan less likely and potentially unsafe.

“I honestly think it is terrifying that ASU wants to have in-person classes,” Kennaugh said. 

The exponential growth of cases in Arizona has made national headlines, and so have articles, images and videos of risky behavior like packed crowds in bars and Arizona's Salt River flooded with people. 

At a press conference on June 29, Ducey issued an executive order to shut down bars, gyms, theaters, water parks and river tubing in an effort to halt the activities that have helped create the spike in cases since the state reopened two months ago.

“All of our leaders and the general population in general aren’t taking it seriously,” said Jake Wilson, a 2020 sustainability graduate who is beginning his masters program this fall.  

Wilson, who tested positive for COVID-19 last month, said “right when bars were able to reopen, they were packed.” 

“As a person who didn’t go out and do that kind of stuff, but got it anyway, it’s really frustrating to look at all the people who are not taking it seriously,” Wilson said.

At the same June 29 press conference, Dr. Cara Christ, director of ADHS, announced hospitals could activate “crisis care standards.” These standards provide hospitals a protocol, based on a variety of factors, on how to determine what patients get critical resources and treatment for when supplies begin to dwindle due to the abundance of cases.

According to Humble, that decision is just “damage-control” to allow hospitals to make “better choices with the limited resources” they have.

Modeling from ASU’s Biodesign Institute suggests Arizona may need to implement surge plans to increase capacity in the coming weeks as the amount of patients in Intensive Care Units continues to creep toward full capacity.

What will come over the coming two weeks is completely up in the air. If more cities enforce face coverings, if businesses are compliant with the governor's order and if testing turnaround time improves and a contact tracing system can effectively be put in place, the state should see a decrease in cases, Humble said. But there is no guarantee that all of those things will happen. 

While the University watches the cases increase statewide, everyone else is left to decide what they will be doing when Aug. 20 comes.

“I've attended multiple webinars, read every email, have talked closely with my fellow colleagues and still I feel lost and confused about what's going on,” Tremblay said. “Bottom line: reopening ASU next month for in-person classes is a bad, bad idea. It will risk lives. People might die. We must go fully online.”

Editor's Note: Carly Golding worked as a reporter for The State Press in 2017 but did not contribute to the reporting or editing of this story. 


Reach the reporter at wmyskow@asu.edu and follow @wmyskow on Twitter. 

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