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University of Arizona plans to return to campus for fall of 2020--By Mackenzie Bivin

Colleges and universities scrambled to deal with the effects of COVID-19 on their campus. As the institutions moved students off campus and embarked on distance learning, the question arose regarding what would fall 2020 look like. Would distance learning continue? Would students be welcomed back to campus for in-person instruction? Although many colleges remain undecided about fall 2020, the University of Arizona has leapt to the forefront in their approach to ensuring the safety and health of its students, professors, and staff.


At a press conference on April 30, University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins announced that classes will be returning to in-person sessions this fall. Robbins seems to have a flair for the dramatic as he made the announcement right after his blood was drawn to receive an antibody test for COVID-19. According to Robbins, antibody tests are very important in his decision to open up the campus.


"I'm certainly hoping that I have a positive [antibody] test because I would feel very comfortable that I would have immunity if my test comes back positive," Robbins said.

Robbins believes that the data shows that a “higher than predicted proportion of the population has been infected” with COVID-19. Robbins points out that the university's own researchers as well as other scientists have shown strong correlations between the presence of antibodies and a person's ability to fight off the virus. Therefore, Robbins thinks a positive antibody test would be a critical step to greatly reduce concerns about someone's ability to contract or spread the virus on campus. Indeed, he is such a believer that he will be offering all 60,000 students, faculty, and staff an anti-bodies test, free of charge.


The University of Arizona clearly benefits from Robbins's medical background. He is an internationally recognized cardiac surgeon who served as the president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center in Houston from 2012 until he took the reins at the University of Arizona in 2017. Thus, it should be no surprise that Robbins has his university at the forefront of addressing the COVID-19 challenge.


The foundation of Robbins's reopening plan rests on a "3-T Approach," which consists of test, trace, and treat. Anybody showing symptoms of COVID-19 would be tested. If the person tests positive, the university would then begin tracing. Tracing requires the university to track down people with whom the symptomatic person may have had extended contact. The University of Arizona defines "extended contact" as being "within six feet for more than 10 minutes." If any of the people who have had extended contact live on campus, the university would quarantine those individuals.


Finally, the University of Arizona would treat not only the individuals who test positive for COVID-19 but all of the students who are being quarantined. Robbins acknowledges that there currently is no drug that specifically treats COVID-19, and his plans do not involve the use of experimental drugs or off-brand use of existing drugs. So, for example, the University of Arizona's treatment plan would not involve giving any infected individual hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that some claim is effective in treating COVID-19. Instead, the university will help the quarantined individuals manage the experience.


"They're going to be isolated, so we're going to provide them food, we're going to provide them mental health services, we're going to provide them comfort as they are dealing with this two-week quarantine and isolation," said Robbins.


Although Robbins is optimistic about having students on the University of Arizona's campus in the fall, he realizes the risk inherent in opening up campus. He foresees a different look around campus, which will include everyone wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, and placing greater limits on the number of students per class. He also acknowledges that the university has to be flexible to address a variety of age groups and health conditions on campus. So, some professors or students might feel safer not returning to campus while continuing to teach or learn remotely. And for some individuals, the choice might not be left up to them. The university may ask certain students and faculty, depending on the risk level, not to return to fall. The university will accommodate them the best it can.


"We're going to have in-person classes but we’re going to continue to learn from the incredible teachings that we’ve had of going completely all remote and digital," said Robbins.

The University of Arizona's approach, as guided by Robbins, could give a template to the rest of the colleges and universities about preparing for this fall.


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