On Monday, the reentry task force met for the second time this semester to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the approaching fall semester and the spread of the Delta variant in the community.
University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins began the meeting by welcoming students back to campus and updating that the campus will be completely equipped for in-person learning. He also emphasized the university’s recently-updated mask policy, which requires face-coverings in indoor spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained such as classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls.
“Since last week’s briefing, all three state universities have announced formalization of indoor masking requirements consistent with this expectation,” Robbins said. “Following review of existing state law and in coordination with the Arizona Board of Regents, I am pleased that we have arrived together at this joint mitigation step centered on campus safety consistent with the law.”
Next, Dr. Richard Carmona went over the data regarding COVID-19 cases in the community. According to Carmona, Pima county has a low average daily case rate when examined relative to the state and at the national level.
Carmona said he is proud of the county’s vaccination rate, especially that of the high risk 65 and over demographic, though he urged against complacency and for people to continue getting vaccinated.
Testing remains slow, but is likely to increase as more students return to campus, Carmona said. Regardless, he said the percent of positive cases at the university is below 5%, which is considered the threshold value.
Carmona also discussed vaccine incentives that may be provided to those among the vaccinated populations. All vaccinated students who have uploaded their vaccine card have a chance to be chosen at random to receive tuition and book scholarships, ZonaZoo passes or lunch with President Robbins.
The task force encouraged students to upload their vaccination card if they have not already. For students who will receive the vaccine at Campus Health, their vaccination will be uploaded automatically.
Regarding mitigation efforts, both Carmona and Robbins said the university is well-equipped for mitigation based on systems in place from the past year. However, Robbins encouraged students to make use of the vaccine, a new protective tool that was not available last year. He was also hopeful that with FDA approval on the horizon, those hesitant to get the vaccine may grow more comfortable.
“The number one effort is going to be to try to convince those who are not vaccinated to get vaccinated,” Robbins said. “It will help protect them. It will help protect others. It will start to eliminate options for this deadly virus to continue to mutate.”
The meeting then transitioned to a question and answer session. Many questions centered on the recent mask mandate announced by Robbins via email on Aug. 11, the same day NAU and ASU announced similar mandates.
This update appeared to contradict Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s Executive Order 2021-15 which stated “a public university or community college may not mandate students obtain a COVID-19 vaccine, show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or place any conditions on attendance or participation in classes or academic activities, including but not limited to mandatory testing and mandatory mask usage.”
This sentiment was echoed in a part of the state budget signed by Ducey in June that will go into effect on September 29, A.R.S § 15-342.05.
“A school district or charter school may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction,” the law states.
Robbins responded by interpreting the governor’s executive order as focused more heavily on vaccine status.
“We are working still under the governor’s executive order, and he was silent on the face-covering issue so we’re not in violation,” Robbins said when referencing the legality of the requirement. “The intent [of the order] was not to treat people differently based on asking about vaccination status.”
According to Robbins, the mandate was coordinated based on conversations between the Arizona Board of Regents, presidents of NAU, ASU and UA and with the governor’s office.
In response to the recent surge in mask mandates initiated by K-12 schools, the Governor’s office responded calling the mandates “toothless, unenforceable and will not hold up in court.”
When asked if he was concerned about a court battle, Robbins expressed that he thinks the university is on “firm, good ground to do what we’re doing.” He also stated that he is determined to safely keep the university open for students.
“I do not see them as mandates, I see them as expectations and requirements following public health requirements … I will leave it to others in the policy and legal realm to decide whether this is enforceable or upheld in court,” Robbins said
The task force will meet again next Monday, Aug. 23.
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