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Northern Arizona University welcomes 16,000 students back to campus for in-person learning

In-person learning at NAU
Posted at 6:21 PM, Aug 31, 2020

FLAGSTAFF, AZ — Northern Arizona University opened up for the first official day of in-person learning on Monday. Classes started remotely August 12 and those living on campus have been slowly moving in for the past several weeks.

A lot of excitement on campus Monday but also concern. With 16,000 students expected in Flagstaff and about 10,000 of those living on campus land, fighting the spread of coronavirus is top of mind.

FULL COVERAGE: Safely Back to School in Arizona

"They were required to upload a negative test result before moving into the residence halls and we had 6,200 students do that already," said Dr. Rita Cheng, president of NAU.

Staggered move-ins and mandatory COVID-19 tests are just part of the university's safety plans.

"Everybody coming on campus has to monitor their health through the health check app," said Dr. Cheng.

Face coverings, physical distancing, flex learning options, surge testing, contactless delivery robots, even an app that alerts you if you've been exposed to COVID-19. All of it intended to slow the spread.

"We will have cases," Dr. Cheng said.

Northern Arizona University has its own zip code on the Coconino County dashboard so the public can see COVID activity on campus. As of Monday, there were 23 reported cases on campus and seven students in isolation as recent as last Wednesday. That data only reflects students or staff members who list 86011 as their physical address. Positive cases from students or staff members living off campus, will be reflected in those corresponding zip codes.

"We haven’t had enough activity that we felt that we needed to have a dashboard or things like that, but we will be communicating that, sharing that as the weeks go by," said Dr. Cheng. "Our students know that their behaviors and actions are important to our success. It's important that the bars and restaurants are true partners, and that the city and county mandates for mask wearing and gatherings stay the way they are."

Several students telling ABC15 they're excited and relieved to be learning in the classroom.

"I think that as long as we are following the guidelines, we’re going to be good," said Ryan Mason, a sophomore.

"This week I’ll be getting in some of my classes in person and finally getting to meet some people that I’ve been seeing on Zoom," said Gabe Rabanal, a freshman from Colorado.

"I don’t really have anything to compare it to so for me it just seems like, it’s just not normal but as normal as it can be," said Courtney Walker, a freshman.

However, not all students are celebrating the return to campus.

The NAU student chapter of the Arizona Education Association has been pushing to postpone in-person learning throughout the summer. Senior Kimo Homer is the chapter president.

"I’m not going to take the risk to possibly infect myself and people that I live with, people that I see on a daily basis in Flagstaff community," said Homer, who has chosen to continue learning remotely.

Calli Jones agrees. She is president of Young Democrats of Arizona.

"You’re bringing almost 20,000 socially-deprived students and expecting them to make the right decision when you clearly could’ve just stopped this in the beginning," said Jones.

The union representing NAU's faculty, staff and graduate student employees is also concerned about the surge of students on campus. It's also asking the university to pull back on in-person learning until the percent positivity rate for Coconino County drops below five percent. As of Monday, it was nine percent.

"Most of our students are not from Flagstaff," said Peter Fule, an NAU professor and member of the University Union of Northern Arizona. "If they get sick and if we were to see large outbreaks such as what occurred in Alabama, North Carolina, those students go home they go back to Maricopa County they go to Pima county they go to California and the virus will go with them."

The Flagstaff Unified District has decided to stay remote through Fall Break. Their superintendent telling ABC15 they are confident the university's decisions have been made using guidance from state and local health officials.