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Students return to ASU, concerns arise over outbreaks and backtracking to online learning

Posted at 5:05 PM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-19 09:49:50-04

As students return to Arizona university campuses, there's a concern that there could be an outbreak not just on campus, but in the surrounding communities.

About 13,000 students will be living on ASU campuses this Fall. And while the university has a strict mitigation plan in place to stop the spread of COVID-19, health experts say they're worried about the spread off-campus.

ASU has certain protocols in place, like requiring masks, a negative COVID test result to move into dorms, and social distancing in classrooms. Students can choose to do in-person learning, online learning or a combination of both.

"To the extent that these protocols are followed closely, that they are enforced, they may be successful at keeping COVID at bay," said Dr. Nirav Shah, a senior scholar at Stanford University.

Dr. Shah is an epidemiologist and said enforcing the protocols may be easier on campus. But what about in the surrounding community and downtown Tempe?

"An arbitrary border between a university and a campus town is arbitrary unless kids stay inside and people don't come into visit. Those are the kinds of rules that need to be followed if we want schools to stay open."

Will Humble with the Arizona Public Health Association said ASU doesn't have control over students off-campus.

"As the students return to those apartment complexes that around the university, those turn into nightclubs on the weekends and keg parties and stuff like that, so part of this is going to be a collaboration with the city of Tempe and ASU."

Many universities have already backtracked and moved to online learning only. Leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced they were switching to online learning Monday after only a week of in-person classes. The university reported new clusters of cases and asked students to leave dorms.

Tuesday, the president of the University of Notre Dame announced that in-person classes for the university’s undergraduate students are suspended until September, replaced by remote instruction only because positive rates for the virus have continued to climb.

"People want to believe that students will follow the rules and get to enjoy a semester together on campus, the reality is that almost everywhere we've seen--that has not worked out," said Dr. Shah.

ASU will have isolation rooms for students who test positive for COVID. Testing will be free and available for students on all campuses, but they're not required to get tested.

"Ultimately it boils down to individual choices. The sum total of every students' choice on how strictly they adhere to the protocols is going to determine if they stay at school or whether school's canceled and they have to go back home," said Dr. Shah.

Nelson, a student, said he heard there were several parties on campus over the weekend that were shut down.

"I'm the kind of guy that would still go to parties, I'd just be careful," he said.

A spokesperson for Tempe police said the department did get several calls for complaints of large gatherings and loud music near campus, but they can't enforce social distancing protocols and wearing masks in private homes. The spokesperson said their goal is to educate before they cite.

According to a spokesperson for the city of Tempe, the city, ASU, Downtown Tempe Authority, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Office and others have been working together to "promote the safest possible return to school."

The city's Neighborhood Services Division has been working with ASU on outreach to off-campus student housing units about safety info. They've been sending digital information, letting them know what to expect as students return to campus. The Downtown Tempe Authority has been working with ASU on business outreach.