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An update from ASU President Michael Crow on ASU's fall 2020 planning and COVID-19 management framework

August 12, 2020

Dear ASU employee:

As the start of our fall semester quickly approaches, I wanted to write today to provide you with a further update on our plans and our framework for the management of COVID-19 at ASU.

Although we have provided many updates since March on our planning efforts through emails, websites, webinars, trainings and other meetings, we know that many still have questions about our planning efforts and I want to address as many items as possible in this communication, hence the length. Additional opportunities to hear from and engage with ASU leadership about our planning efforts will be provided in the days and weeks ahead.

First, I want to acknowledge that this is a unique time for everyone. Never before in our lifetimes have we had to navigate our way through a pandemic of this nature. Everyone’s life has been affected by the pandemic differently, and we’ve all felt — and continue to feel — a range of emotions stemming from the impact of COVID-19. 

We each have our own unique set of personal and professional circumstances we are working through. I understand that while some of us may be ready to return to campus, others may have concerns, anxiety or uncertainties. I believe one of ASU’s strengths has always been its ability to acknowledge the uniqueness of our community and to find commonality in our shared mission. So what we have set forth to achieve in our planning for the fall 2020 semester is an acknowledgement of the complexities COVID-19 has presented in all of our lives while providing a supportive, flexible environment that empowers individuals to continue to move forward.

PLANNING FOR FALL 2020 DRAWS DIRECTLY FROM THE ASU CHARTER
ASU will begin its fall semester on Aug. 20. We will offer courses in three modalities: ASU immersion (on-campus, in-person, technology-enhanced learning); ASU Sync (synchronous, technology-enhanced and fully-interactive remote learning); and iCourses (courses delivered entirely online with lectures and materials available on demand). In addition, ASU Online continues to attract students with courses and degrees of the highest quality. 

This approach reflects the promise affirmed in our charter in a manner that balances the academic and operational well-being of ASU with the health and safety of the more than 100,000 members of the ASU community who are based here in Arizona. In order to achieve this balance, we have sought to design and implement a set of institutional decisions, guidelines and protocols that are intended to provide each member of the ASU community with as many tools, resources, choices and as much actionable information as is possible to facilitate informed decision-making during the pandemic. In order to give you more insight into our COVID-19 management framework, I’ve set out below some of the assumptions, facts and decisions that have gone into its development.  

It is important to note that this framework represents the work of dozens of faculty and staff who have been collaborating tirelessly since the spring semester to design plans to bring students and employees back to ASU campuses and take appropriate precautions in light of current public health conditions. Those individuals have drawn on scientific information and public health guidance at all levels. We would not be moving forward if we did not have confidence in our ASU team and our framework. We do acknowledge that some details may need to be adjusted over time depending on change in the spread of the virus. We’ve been able to quickly adjust in the past, and I’m confident we’ll be able to do so again if needed.

ASU’S COVID-19 MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORK ASSUMES LONG-TERM PLANNING
Underlying our COVID-19 management framework is the assumption that the COVID-19 pandemic will not be “over” or substantially mitigated by vaccines, treatments and other public health measures for the foreseeable future. In other words, we are putting in place a framework to manage COVID-19 at our university and within our ASU community over the medium to long term. It is essential that we all understand this assumption because it underlies our belief that we cannot just “wait out” COVID-19 as there is no reasonable basis on which to believe it will be fully conquered anytime in the near future. We all wish that reality were different, but the recognition of that fact calls for the implementation of a plan that ensures we have built a model for the advancement and operation of ASU in a balanced and sustainable manner well into the future. 

Though we all hope that there will be an effective vaccine available sometime in spring 2021, we recognize the likelihood that COVID-19 vaccines — like influenza vaccines — may not be entirely effective. It is also unlikely that the whole population will opt to receive the vaccine or be able to do so. Like influenza, this virus mutates and there are multiple strains in the population now, several of which didn’t exist when they started developing vaccines. The vaccine will be a great tool, but it is unlikely it will quickly eradicate the illness. It will, hopefully, make it easier to manage. 

The good news is that we know how to control the spread of such diseases even in the context of controlled, in-person gatherings. We simply need to apply that knowledge effectively. If we do that, we will likely not only bring the risk of COVID-19 to a low level, but also reduce the incidence of other respiratory viruses as well (which kill, directly or by leading to pneumonia, about 50,000 per year in the U.S.).

ASU IS AN ESSENTIAL SERVICE FOR THE STATE AND THE NATION
ASU, through its more than 25,000 employees, delivers a set of essential functions (see March 23 executive order) to its students and to the broader community locally and nationally through its research and service functions. Our mission is similar to other essential industries and workers that have continued to deliver critical services during the pandemic including health care workers, first responders and those working in our food supply and utilities systems. As our charter states, we “assume fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities we serve.”Continuing to fulfill our charter under current public health circumstances is essential to the advancement of individual and societal success. ASU services are a lifeline to many. We are housing students who might not otherwise have a place to live or even be able to attend the university; we are training nurses to be front-line health care workers; we are training teachers to go into the field and lead our K-12 system through its own set of challenges and complexities; we are training engineers to lead our nation into a new economy driven by technology; and we’re conducting critical research on COVID-19 testing, vaccines and more. 

Demand for education continues to remain high from learners of all ages and all stages of life. We believe that students can and should be afforded the opportunity to attend class in a socially distanced setting with a face covering or to live in a residence hall that is akin to apartment-style living. Based on the efforts that have been made to adapt other settings, such as offices, retail, restaurants and service providers, we believe we can do so.

There simply is no circumstance in which ASU can “shut down” or “turn off.” And, as we continue to fulfill our mission, ASU employees will need to be on campus to help carry out those essential functions. Since mid-March, when the pandemic forced many entities to move primarily to remote operations, ASU still had more than 1,000 employees coming to our campuses every day to maintain operations and to support the health and well-being of our many students who have been engaged with us since the beginning of the pandemic. Over that same period, we had between 500-700 students living on campus. The number of employees returning to our campuses has steadily increased since June, and presently we have 3,000 students who have moved their belongings into our residence halls with several thousand more joining us this weekend.

We also rely on many partners to help deliver our services. All entities that provide goods and services to ASU have been notified of our guidelines for contractors and suppliers . ASU’s standard contractual terms and conditions have been updated to mandate that entities that supply goods and services to ASU follow these guidelines. Entities that are known to have their employees on ASU sites have been contacted to ensure they are complying with ASU guidelines, and our agreements have been updated to reflect the same. Major ASU partners that provide core on-site support such as dining, transit, custodial and other services have been offered access to ASU COVID-19 testing through the Biodesign Institute. 

ASU WORKS FOR THE COLLECTIVE BENEFIT OF OUR COMMUNITY
Our COVID-19 management framework is based on the assumption that we at ASU will organize ourselves and operate the institution for the greater, collective benefit of our community and the state of Arizona. By now, everyone should be familiar with all of the mitigation strategies the university has put in place to lower the probability of spreading and contracting the virus. These strategies have been publicly available since June and have been communicated to students, employees and the public multiple times through multiple media; however, I will summarize them below:

  • Three modalities for classes to meet students and faculty where they are depending on location or circumstance as a result of COVID-19 — ASU immersion, ASU Sync and iCourses.
  • Courses with 100 or more students operating in ASU Sync only.
  • Courses with fewer than 100 students are subject to limits on classroom occupancy to adhere to social distancing measures, using staggered in-person attendance, if needed.
  • All faculty operating labs have had to submit a safety plan approved by the department chair and dean.
  • Mandatory face coverings in all ASU buildings. Mandatory face coverings in ASU outdoor community spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.
  • COVID-19 testing at no charge for all students and employees.Business partners such as Olympus (custodial) and Aramark (food service) have also been offered access to testing through the university. 
  • Mandatory testing and proof of a negative test for students before moving into a residence hall.
  • No visitors in residence halls.
  • Lounges and kitchens in residence halls locked where possible and available for use by appointment only.
  • Physical access to university libraries limited to ASU students and employees only via Sun Card. Visitors welcome by appointment only. Library furniture reconfigured, study-room capacity lowered and some computers removed to ensure physical distancing.
  • Medical-grade and repeated cleaning of all ASU spaces.
  • Community of Care kits with face coverings, hand sanitizer, thermometers and other personal hygiene items provided to all students and employees.
  • No social gatherings on ASU campuses. Students participating in activities off campus designed to purposefully disregard public health protocols will be held accountable through the Student Code of Conduct.
  • Daily health check required for all students and employees designed to identify COVID-19 symptoms and restrict on-campus activity and interaction with others if symptoms are identified.
  • Community of Care training required for all students and employees.
  • Plexiglas barriers in high-frequency areas and touchless technology installed.
  • Takeout only in dining halls.
  • In-person and telehealth services for all students.
  • Reduced intercampus shuttle capacity.
  • Visitors to ASU locations required to adhere to our protocols.
  • Active engagement with surrounding businesses and the municipalities our campuses are located in to seek commitment on adhering to public health protocols.
  • University-sponsored international travel is prohibited; domestic travel must be approved by a dean or vice president as well as an executive vice president.
  • Staffing plans that adhere to social distancing protocols.

All of this information and more has been made available on our fall 2020 webpage . We have established a streamlined process for individuals seeking accommodations based on underlying health concerns or other factors that place them at high risk of severe illness to request and receive accommodations. We have also encouraged supervisors to explore options to address the needs of other employees while also permitting them to continue their work, and many such options have been identified and provided.

ASU’S COVID-19 MANAGEMENT FRAMEWORK IS BASED ON SCIENTIFIC DATA AND TOOLS TO MANAGE THE DISEASE
The ASU COVID-19 management framework is based upon our evaluation of the best science, data and public health practices that we could identify. It is also based on the stability of the virus spread in Arizona and the tools we have available to manage it. The number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Arizona are in steady decline. As of Aug. 6 (the most recent date that complete data is available), the number of confirmed cases in Arizona was about 1,100 per day. This is down from over 4,000 per day at the beginning of July. There is a similar drop in deaths, and hospitalizations have eased down as well. This puts Arizona at less than the average number of daily new cases per 100,000 population in the U.S., and dropping. These drops came about coincident with the time that the municipalities enforced mask restrictions. This is direct empirical evidence within the Arizona population that wearing of masks is effective. At ASU, our face coverings requirements are at least as stringent as those of municipalities. In addition, we are using techniques such as facility air exchange, facility cleaning, limits on group size and distancing to reduce the spread.

One value people use to understand the level of viral transmission is Rt, which is roughly the average number of people subsequently infected by each currently infected person.  As of Aug. 9, according to the website Rt live (https://rt.live/us/AZ ), Rt for Arizona is 0.82. When Rt is less than one, the number of infected people drops exponentially with time, as we are observing. It is worth noting that 0.82 is the lowest level we have reached since the beginning of the pandemic; lower than when we were under full stay-at-home orders. While this is not the only indicator used in determining our campus activity, it is a useful data point to factor into our planning. 

The design and implementation of our testing methodologies and protocols have been led by Professor Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the ASU Biodesign Institute, with assistance and support from Professor Neal Woodbury , interim executive vice president, Knowledge Enterprise, along with dozens of other faculty supporting this effort. We will constantly monitor our population for positive cases. Currently, we are testing all students moving into residence halls. New, ongoing testing protocols for students and employees may be announced to monitor the potential spread of COVID-19.

This is also true of our COVID-19 modeling effort upon which ASU relies for the best available information about the status of COVID-19 spread in Arizona. In addition to the leadership and advice provided by ASU faculty, we have sought the assistance of Mayo Clinic in the identification and acquisition of testing tools and methodologies and in providing insights and advice about COVID-19 management and response.

One key area to manage is the level of exposure. The probability of catching the disease — and likely its severity — depends on the level of viral exposure. Simply being in the vicinity of an infected person briefly, or being exposed to a few virus particles, is very unlikely to result in infection. The ability for the disease to transmit diminishes significantly with distance, particularly in a room or area where air is exchanged frequently. Face coverings greatly decrease the release of tiny droplets that can result in COVID-19 spread. If you and all others wear them, the probability of infection drops dramatically. 

ASU HAS A DIFFERENT OPERATIONAL MODEL THAN K-12
There have been attempts to draw parallels between ASU and K-12 and calls for benchmarks similar to K-12 as it relates to in-person instruction. To be clear, ASU operates very differently than K-12, and since the beginning of the pandemic K-12 and higher education have received separate and distinct CDC guidance as it relates to resuming in-person instruction, which we have closely followed. Our students are adults, and they can take classes on specific days and times rather than congregating in a single building where they learn and eat over the course of a full day. The nature and frequency of our students’ interactions are different from that of K-12 students, and we can impose different rules and regulations on our student body that will help us to manage COVID-19. Face coverings on campus are required, and social distancing in classrooms and throughout the campus will be adhered to. Students and employees will be required to complete a health check every day before starting their day and will be required to self-isolate if they are experiencing symptoms or believe they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

We have technology and infrastructure to deal with the challenges of masking, distancing, moving air and maintaining hygiene. We will use this technology to adjust the numbers of students physically present, teach high-occupancy classes remotely, adjust how many students are in a given space, adjust class schedules and locations (including utilizing outside spaces) and minimize the presence on campus of anyone suspected or known to be ill. Our testing capacity will allow us to determine if someone is positive within about an hour if needed or within 24-48 hours for routine checks. In this way, we can keep within, and frequently exceed, CDC guidelines.

ASU’S PLANNING REFLECTS A COMMITMENT TO STUDENT SUCCESS
While some have suggested our fall 2020 plans are driven by finances, this is simply not the case. We do not have a financial mission; we do have a social and economic advancement mission. We are — and have been — committed to student success and have invested significantly to make that a reality. Our efforts to continue serving students reflect that ongoing commitment. It is always the case that we must find ways to operate the institution in a financially sustainable manner, but finances are not the end goal. 

In order to ensure that we can continue to meet our mission of social and economic advancement now and in the future, we are working very hard to provide an operational framework that allows us to balance our desire to protect the jobs and economic well-being of our faculty and staff while adjusting to significant, abrupt changes in the needs and wants of our students and learners in Arizona, the United States and internationally, as well as other significant, abrupt changes in the economy, the national public-policy environment and in the global demand for higher education.

It is understandable that the evaluation of the factors and considerations set out above may result in different conclusions about the best course of action for ASU, its students and employees, and the people of Arizona. But I want to assure you that we are working diligently to ensure we have a solid foundation for the actions we are taking to advance ASU in its mission of teaching, learning, producing new knowledge and serving the greater community, and that we are asking for and listening to the input we receive from all members of our community.  The balancing of interests and factors is admittedly complex, but we’ll continue to engage in a continuous effort to strike the best possible balance for everyone.

I have stated from the beginning of this pandemic that one of our key strengths at ASU is our adaptability and our ability to change course quickly as needed. Building on that strength and keeping that mindset will be key to our long-term success as uncertainty remains a companion.  As we continue forward, we will be able to quickly discern any changes that would warrant a shift in our approach and will move with appropriate speed if changes become necessary.

Thank you for your continued service to ASU, our students and our community. As always, I welcome your comments, and I look forward to working with you to make fall 2020 a very successful semester.

Sincerely,

Michael M. Crow
President
Arizona State University