State Press Play: The New Normal, part one

Episode one of this three-part miniseries follows the lives of five students as they navigate college, hand-in-hand with the virus

A year after hybrid learning, ASU students have returned to campus. In this three-part miniseries, Reporter Sonya Sheptunov follows the lives of five students as they navigate college, hand-in-hand with the virus. 

Editor's Note: The podcast audio incorrectly states the date Gov. Doug Ducey posted his tweet about vaccine mandates as Sept. 21. The correct date the tweet was posted is Sept. 14. The transcript has been changed to reflect the correct date.


SONYA SHEPTUNOV

ASU is back on campus, in-person.

With packed lectures, dining halls and football games, it's clear that the ASU community is looking for something normal. 

We're trying something new here over at State Press Play. We'll be following the lives of five students as they navigate the fall semester and a pandemic that hasn't ended.

CHLOE LOPEZ

My name is Chloe Lopez.

ISABEL HAAS

I'm Isabel.

ANNIE GRAZIANO

I'm Annie Graziano. 

MOLLY STREPPA

I'm Molly Streppa. 

ALEX HERNANDEZ

I'm Alex Hernandez.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

And I am your host, Sonya Sheptunov, and this is "The New Normal," from State Press Play.

Last year's once empty campus is packed with students going to classes in person. And this is a pretty radical switch compared to the virtually empty ASU we saw last year. 

For those of us who were around for last year — and for longer — we knew that the return to campus would arrive. The real question was how soon. 

PIPER HANSEN

You know, when you talk to the University, it's kind of hard to get them to break away from the words that they use to describe things, and really break it down in layman's terms. You know, I don't want to hear the word 'innovative' ever again ...

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

State Press Politics Editor Piper Hansen is here to help us recap. Not only did she experience ASU's COVID response firsthand when the pandemic first began, she's also spent a large chunk of her time at ASU reporting on the University, and more recently, the presence of COVID.

PIPER HANSEN

I think the culture at the time, the culture that we've sort of created over the past year, is that masks are expected, especially when you're around a lot of strangers.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

The hybrid model, or "Learning Mode 2," allowed students to choose based on their comfort: they could attend small lectures, masked up, in-person, or attend classes virtually from Zoom. 

PIPER HANSEN

They tried to do a half-and-half situation where, like, you would sign up to come in person on the Monday section of your class, and then on Wednesday, you would go to class on Zoom. And I don't think that a lot of people experienced that, I think it was a lot of, like, 'no, I'm just going to do all in-person or all Zoom,' because I think that a lot of people realized it was a little bit too hard to do both.  

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

This feature of the hybrid model really made no difference to students who moved out of their dorms and went back to their home states. I mean, you can't necessarily show up to a class once a week when you might be a hundred, or a thousand miles away.

By February of this year, Mark Searle, who was the executive vice president and University provost, made an announcement stating that the University intended to return to "Learning Mode 1," or entirely to in-person instruction, by fall of 2021. 

At this point in February, the state was in phase 1A of its vaccine distribution plan. Professors teaching in person at Arizona State were slated to receive a vaccine in phase 1B. So after two semesters of hybrid learning, ASU essentially set a date — pending concerns for public health — to 'go back to normal,' so to speak. 

While this may have felt like a bold move for ASU at the time, there is more nuance to be found there. 

PIPER HANSEN

I think that it was easier for them to sort of make a decision, and then try to make it the right one. In figuring out this is what safety protocol needs to be met in order for this goal to be achieved. And I think, you know, the University has always had this thought in mind, that as long as cases are manageable, we can continue doing what we do here. And that is huge, that's what they've continued to say.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

So the University set a goal, stuck to that goal and worked with as many people as possible to achieve that goal.

PIPER HANSEN

I think that at the time, it seemed like they were jumping the gun to say, six months out we're going to be back in person, but I do think that they worked with people at the University, with the state, with all of these other outside groups, who were providing, you know, guidance, who were telling them, you know, it's okay, who were providing, you know, additional information as the delta variant started popping up in the summer. That they, like I said, made a decision and then worked to make it the right one.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

So as vaccination rates rose, the University adapted its face-covering policy in May. People were still required to wear masks inside ASU buildings, but if they were fully vaccinated, they didn't need to wear masks outside. 

In June, ASU changed its policy again, on track for a fall return to campus. Staff was told to move back to "pre-pandemic work arrangements" by July 15. In the June announcement, ASU also outlined expectations for its vaccinated and unvaccinated employees. Unvaccinated employees would be expected to wear face covers in ASU buildings at all times and would be selected for COVID testing. Fully-vaccinated employees wouldn't need to wear masks inside ASU buildings and could say goodbye to the Daily Health Check, a daily survey conducted through the ASU app that members of the University had to fill out during the hybrid year.

The University followed up with a similar update for students on June 14. Unvaccinated students and students who didn't share their vaccination status would need to submit a Daily Health Check, participate in weekly testing and mask up everywhere on ASU campuses.

The University reaffirmed their encouragement of mask-wearing, but in this plan, they confirmed vaccinated students would not be expected to follow the same guidelines as unvaccinated students.

This June plan should sound pretty different from the protocol we've been following now. State-level politics has always been involved in forming ASU's COVID response, but more recently, they've come into conflict with the University. I spoke to Dr. LaBaer, the executive director of the ASU Biodesign Institute, about ASU's COVID response. 

JOSHUA LABAER

We've had to steer very complex waters here in part because of, the, you know, the, kind of the political circumstances of the state and all the elements there, and certain tools that might be available in some places were not available to us. So very careful phraseology was used to express rules. I was not part of that process at all. But I think the general gist of what we were trying to accomplish was pretty clear. And it seems to have been adopted, if you look at the students and if you look at the outcomes, overall I think we did pretty well there.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Gov. Doug Ducey issued several executive orders relevant to us over the summer. The first, signed in June, reads that public universities or community colleges can't do vaccine mandates, can't make people show their vax cards and can't mandate mask-wearing or mandatory testing. Per this executive order, universities also can't determine who attends classes or activities because of their vaccination status.

The second executive order, issued in August, stops local governments from implementing vaccine mandates. Think cities and counties. Per the August executive order, this is now actually enforceable by a Class 3 Misdemeanor. 

The June executive order targeting public universities was actually rescinded, among a flurry of others, in a later executive order signed in early July. The rescinding didn't go in effect until Sep. 29. However, Ducey's position on mandates has remained firm. 

In a Tweet posted on Sept. 14, Ducey reaffirmed his stance on mandating vaccines, writing, "we have made it clear that we are anti vaccine mandate, but we are committed to getting the vaccine to anyone who wants it."

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Seeing unmasked people on campus incites complicated feelings in some. Molly Streppa is a junior studying art education at ASU. We talked about what goes through their mind: 

MOLLY STREPPA

I think with masks, what I look for is when I don't see a mask, do I think that that person is vaccinated? Do I not know? Do they look like they would be mean to me? Because that type of person I can't trust. Maybe they're perfectly nice people, that's not my place to make an assumption like that; however, if they're not wearing a mask, my trust in them having interest in people around them is way lower. If they're not wearing a mask or they're not staying away from people — a lot of people get way too close to other people, because they don't have any sense of space.  

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Molly isn't alone. Isabel Haas is a Barrett sophomore studying global studies and applied math. She described her newfound awareness of people walking through campus this semester. 

ISABEL HAAS

You have this awareness that people are behind you and beside you, and having like, done the whole social distancing thing for forever, I'm like, "this isn’t six feet apart. How do I really measure this?"

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

I talked to Alex Hernandez, a transfer senior from the University of Arizona studying biology. To him, there are three types of people when it comes to dealing with COVID at this point in the pandemic. 

ALEX HERNANDEZ

One that trusts the science and follow the rules and stay cautious, ones that don't really care, and really, just don't wanna trust it at all, and then there's those who are like, well, yeah, we'll trust it, but sooner or later we do have to get out of this. We do have to maintain some type of normalcy that we had back in March 2020 when this all started. 

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Alex puts himself in the frankly tired third category he described. 

ALEX HERNANDEZ

I remain cautious, I choose to stay in the middle ground where it's like, we need to act under this new normal, because nothing is going to go back to normal. We can't just go back to everything beforehand.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

All in all, this is a tough situation for students, and the University, to be in. To students who have been careful the entire pandemic about getting sick or getting their families sick, it's hard to see students walking into classrooms wearing masks wrong — or not wearing them at all. 

Chloe Lopez is a freshman pursuing a degree in justice studies at ASU. 

CHLOE LOPEZ

Like, what I don't like, is when I'm in class, and like, again, kids have their mask on but they pull it down purposefully, I don't know. They just pull it down purposefully so they can breathe, or they like, pull it far away so they can breathe.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Molly experiences the same type of dissatisfaction. 

MOLLY STREPPA

I think my usual days are affected by the University policy of "the honors code." Of how, we're gonna trust you to be an adult about this, and to do what you need to do given your situation, because masks aren't always to keep yourself safe, because they don't really filter that way. It's filtering what you give out. So I can wear a mask all day long, I'm just protecting the people around me. And I think that that's either not well known or they're just not thinking about it?

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Right, because COVID spread is limited only when all parties participate. Here's Dr. LaBaer with more.

JOSHUA LABAER

So this virus, without a doubt, transmits via — it's an airborne transmission. The virus surfs along droplets of moisture that come from our mouths. When we speak, we produce 2,600 droplets of saliva per second. So it's a huge amount of — you know, thousands of droplets per second. And so when we talk, we're surrounded by a cloud of moisture that comes from our mouths, and if other people get within that cloud and breathe it, then the viruses are going to get into them. Which is why the masks are so effective, you know, particularly if both people are wearing masks, because it's sort of a double filter to prevent that moisture from getting from one person to the other.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

This is exactly why mask-wearing is still important, even at this point in the pandemic. 

JOSHUA LABAER

But if you're in a circumstance where you're within that radius of moisture, and you're closely packed among many individuals, so there's a mathematical increased probability that someone in that group has the virus and their moisture is going to get to the other people, that's when it's going to happen, right.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

It seems like all of the students I interviewed have a story in which a student doesn't mask or doesn't mask properly in a classroom. 

ISABEL HAAS

In my class last week, this one kid walked in and the teacher was like, "get out and go grab a mask to come back in," and this kid just walked out, slammed the door and never came back.

ALEX HERNANDEZ

They got into a fight with my professor about it. It was outdoors, we just knew it was happening outdoors, about it.  

MOLLY STREPPA

I don't trust a lot of other 20-year-olds with a god complex to do what they need to do to keep me safe.

ALEX HERNANDEZ

Verbal altercation outdoors, like the doors were closed, but we knew what was going on, obviously.

ANNIE GRAZIANO

I had a professor who, the first two weeks of class, would not wear a mask when he was teaching. And it was a big lecture hall so he wasn't close to anybody, but he still wasn't wearing a mask, and this entire week and next week I have do his class on Zoom because he has symptoms and he's quarantining.

CHLOE LOPEZ

I'm like, you're in the class for 50 minutes, I think you can handle it. Because like, people take it off as soon as you walk out.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

So what happens when people don't wear masks, or don't wear them properly? Do they get in trouble? Is it the professor's job to stop class, to single out a student for not wearing a mask or not wearing it correctly? I spoke to Anne Jones, the vice provost for undergraduate education, about the enforcement of mask-wearing on campus. Here's what she said. 

ANNE JONES

The enforcement, as you put it, generally falls on the Dean of Students Office and Student Rights and Responsibilities, insofar as any enforcement thought of as being a code of conduct issue. We try not to think about the policy in terms of starting with enforcement. The policy is there to support the health and safety of the entire ASU community. And so, generally, as an educational institution, rather than starting at enforcement, we think about what are the educational opportunities to help people understand why the policy is in place and to help them understand what they need to be doing to be compliant with the policy. 

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

So what happens next? Have attempts to educate people been working? 

ISABEL HAAS

But yeah, like I can't really think of any big measures they've really done, other than like, yeah, a few newsletters or posts on doors saying, "it's like recommended to wear a mask, here's a little blurb on why."

ALEX HERNANDEZ

It is an educational opportunity I guess, but the closest I think I've seen to educational stuff is the COVID-19 testing thing that they've always sent out. That's the most I've seen.

ANNIE GRAZIANO

Everybody knows at this point why they should be wearing a mask. I don't think it's like if my professor, if I had walked up to him, and been like, "Hey dude, you should really be wearing a mask." I don't think he would have been like, "Oh my gosh. COVID's a thing? Like, it can spread from my mouth? That's crazy!" And then put one on. He's an upper-level engineering professor. I'm pretty sure he's heard about it.

ISABEL HAAS

I think at this point, with vaccines having been open to the public, if they're not following rules or they're not wearing masks or anything at this point, it's already a belief in a way? That it's something that he already has this established in his mind, that he's either already vaccinated and feels like it's whatever, or he doesn't believe in that and that COVID is not a big deal and that it's just a common cold. If the teacher pulled him aside to talk to him about this and was like, "OK, this is what COVID is, this is why it's important," maybe it would have changed his mind for a few days, to actually wear a mask, to bring a mask, but I don't think it would have changed his mind at all.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

With the return to campus comes the hotly anticipated resurgence of student life. The ASU Programming and Activities Board, or PAB, hosted InfernoFest in mid-August, at which Jack Harlow performed at Sun Devil Stadium. 

Alex, who attended the concert, described his experience. 

ALEX HERNANDEZ

Well, it was literally like mostly nobody was wearing a mask at the Jack Harlow concert, and it was also super, super hot at night so, and like, wearing the mask and having sweat all over my face, it was just still not like, fun to do.

ALEX HERNANDEZ

Pretty much if you wanted to see Jack Harlow, you needed to just like, get as tight as you can to everybody, but I mean I was just there with some friends, and we were like, "OK, I guess let's all be close to each other." And also, it didn't help that everyone was throwing, like, water bottles, and stuff all around, because you know, freshmen are excited! They're excited!

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Onlookers on social media watched a mostly empty stadium full of maskless people, throwing water bottles and screaming, with no small degree of skepticism.

JOSHUA LABAER

It's a tough call. I think, you know, a lot of people are frustrated and tired of the whole COVID thing, I think all of us are.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Dr. LaBaer and I looked at some photos from the Jack Harlow concert, as well as some from the football games we've had so far.

JOSHUA LABAER

Right, right. So I mean, obviously we're looking at closely packed people, at events, in the middle of a delta surge, and no one here is wearing masks. And obviously, that would not be ideal. I've regularly recommended, even when outdoors, when you're in crowds this tight, people should be wearing masks.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Going to events is an important part of student life, but it's a judgement call that everyone has to make.

The common goal among freshmen like Chloe seems to be making up for lost time by making the most of the year we have. 

To seniors like Alex, the most important part is to be courteous of others while at the same time allowing yourself to live. 

ALEX HERNANDEZ

I think ASU is trying their best. It is like, how do you get like 70,000 students to comply with this?

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

To juniors like Annie and Molly, the pandemic has similarly shifted their focus and forced them to re-evaluate. The period of social isolation last year allowed them both to step back and reprioritize their own mental health. 

MOLLY STREPPA

I think mostly what I've learned from the past year or so is that you have to be careful about what you're prioritizing, and I did learn it the hard way. I spent a lot of the pandemic being really sad and going through quite a bit with the people around me.

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

At the end of the day, there are things we can and things we can't control. 

MOLLY STREPPA

Taking a lot of it to heart, when really, it's a hard situation for everybody. And being hard on yourself, and building up a lot of resentment over what people aren't doing, can be just as damaging as allowing yourself to be ignorant to it.  

SONYA SHEPTUNOV

Thank you for listening to this podcast. 

Keep an eye out for the next episode of "The New Normal" from State Press Play in early November. 

A big thank you to our students: Chloe Lopez, Isabel Haas, Annie Graziano, Molly Streppa and Alex Hernandez. 

Thank you to our guests: Anne Jones, Joshua LaBaer and Piper Hansen. 

Thank you to our multimedia team: Kate Ourada, Zach Van Arsdale and Andrew Onodera.

Our music has been from Epidemic Sound, thank you to Rachel Meyer.

You can find State Press Play on Spotify or on The State Press website, statepress.com/multimedia.

I'm Sonya Sheptunov and this has been "The New Normal," from State Press Play.


Listen to this podcast on Spotify.

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

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