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University of Arizona moves forward with re-entry plans as faculty, staff voice concerns
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University of Arizona moves forward with re-entry plans as faculty, staff voice concerns

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series

A livestream at 10 a.m. on Thursday will provide an update on the reentry plan for University of Arizona students. School President Robert Robbins is scheduled to be on the livestream.

There’s cause for concern for the University of Arizona’s reentry plans after a recent uptick in coronavirus infections in the state and about 50 days left to finalize plans for the fall, the administration says.

President Robert Robbins said the rise in infections — currently at 32,918 cases statewide — may only be a peak of the first wave of the coronavirus.

“We’re going to see a second spike and a third spike and a fourth spike, the question is going to be can we mitigate that and manage the campus with people on the campus,” Robbins said during a virtual meeting about the school’s plan this week.

He said a possible scenario preventing reentry in August is if Arizona starts to resemble New York, which saw its intensive-care unit beds and ventilators near capacity during its pandemic peak.

The administration will make a decision in July and ensure it meets Arizona Board of Regents measures passed in a board meeting Friday.

Some of the requirements include: testing or screening the UA community; reducing density in classrooms, work and public areas; continued contact tracing; education and promotion of safe practices; and preparing student health resources for both physical and mental impacts caused by COVID-19.

So far, the UA is continuing to ramp up its research operations on campus. About 300 of its 800 research units have restarted by meeting safety guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some of those working on campus are working in space-related research, COVID-19 research and research areas critical to a student’s graduation.

Third- and fourth-year medical students returned to their hospital rotations in recent days.

The research includes determining what long-term consequences of contracting the coronavirus could help to better understand the impacts it could have on the UA community. Collin Catalfamo, a student researcher, is working in this area along with students at the UA’s Phoenix campus and Arizona State University.

Their goal is to gather a statewide cohort of people who have and have not contracted the disease and determine if similar impacts from other viruses are found in the current coronavirus.

The risk of exposure is something students, faculty and staff will have to accept if they choose to return to campus Aug. 24.

Liesl Folks, senior vice president for academic affairs, placed importance on the real-world experiences to practice and obtain knowledge needed for students to thrive in their chosen careers.

“That spans the gamut of research-intensive experiences, it includes clinical rotations, it also involves placements for our students who are learning how to be teachers. They normally spend a lot of time working in schools, so across this enormous array of activities, we’re trying to figure out how do we safely allow that training to continue,” Folks said.

Campus Coalition voices concerns

While the administration spoke about navigating its reentry plan, the Coalition for Academic Justice — made up of over 200 faculty, staff and graduate students — voiced its concerns as furloughs are less than three weeks away from being implemented.

“Officially the UA is pursuing a plan that avoids layoffs through furloughs, which is curious because over 70 faculty and staff have already been laid off and we can easily project that number can rise,” said Dave Mondy, who was laid off from his lecturer position he’s held for the past six years in the writing program.

They have been notified of other employees being laid off in the writing department, campus bookstore and campus academic support programs, which include aid to the university’s most vulnerable students, the coalition said.

“We’re also extremely concerned about staff and their role in cleaning, maintaining and following these reentry plans and their potential of being afraid of speaking up about their concerns because they may not be in a financially secure position to potentially lose their jobs,” said Duarte Diaz, associate professor in the animal and comparative biomedical sciences department.

Robbins on Thursday acknowledged, “it’s a fairly aggressive plan” that would help mitigate around $90 million out of an estimated loss of $250 million through the 2021 fiscal year.

“We’re trying to preserve jobs, our goal with this was to try to keep as many jobs as we possibly can,” Robbins said.

The coalition proposed an alternative furlough plan June 1, suggesting a raise to the floor where furloughs would start from $44,500 to $70,000. The coalition said it would save an excess of $86 million as those making over $200,000 share more of the burden instead of the lowest paid employees.

“During a pandemic, the UA is choosing to protect its image and its administration rather than the very people who give money to be part of that system, which are the students and the very people who have given their hearts, expertise and souls to those students, who are teachers and staff,” said T.C. Tolbert, another coalition member laid off in the writing program.

Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com

On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1.

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