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UA plans in-person courses for fall semester

University of Arizona canceled all live classes in mid-March over COVID-19 outbreak

University of Arizona classrooms should be back in action for the fall semester, which starts in August, school President Robert Robbins said Thursday.

Robbins issued a short statement, saying the university "plans to resume in-person classes in the fall semester," but did not definitively announce that classes will be held.

UA canceled live classroom meetings in mid-March over the coronavirus outbreak.

The semester begins August 24. University officials have predicted a dramatic drop in enrollment, with planned staff furloughs and pay cuts set to help cover a projected $250 million budget hole next year.

"I am pleased to publicly announce today our intention to return to in-person classes at the University of Arizona for the fall semester," Robbins said in a news release. "We will honor all local, state and federal protective measures that apply, and, of course, there are many factors that remain beyond our control."

"However, we are tackling what is within our control to ensure our students have the opportunity for a full on-campus experience," the UA president said.

Robbins has previously said that UA's budget shortfall could hit $500 million if students cannot return to the campus this fall.

Robbins made the announcement after having his blood drawn for testing on the first day of a COVID-19 antibody testing effort being carried out by the state and UA.

"We have launched antibody testing for the county and will soon begin antibody testing 250,000 health care workers and first responders for the state of Arizona in partnership with the governor’s office," Robbins said. "Next, we will test our own students, faculty and staff. We are expanding our diagnostic testing capability for COVID-19 infection. In short, we are working with local and national experts to create best-in-class strategies to reopen the campus."

Antibody tests have been found to vary widely in quality, with many having large percentages of errors, including false negatives. Studies have yet to confirm that the presence of antibodies to novel coronavirus indicates any level of immunity to future infections of COVID-19, although researchers theorize that some immunity is likely.

Janko Nikolich-Žugich, chair of UA's Department of Immunobiology. said UA's antibody test correctly classified all 30 confirmed COVID-19 patient samples as positive during a review of its accuracy, and has correctly classified all 32 samples obtained before the coronavirus outbreak as negative.

"Because experts still do not know enough about this virus, protection should not be assumed" from a test that indicates a person has coronavirus antibodies, UA officials said Wednesday.

Current estimates suggest that as many as 50 percent of people who have been exposed to the virus have experienced no or minimal symptoms and could have been unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.

With so few people in Arizona having been tested for COVID-19 thus far, there is little data about how hard the virus has hit the state.

The university has kicked off its testing effort in Pima County with 3,000 frontline health care workers and first responders as part of a state-funded initiative to test those groups across Arizona. Through separate funding, 1,500 members of the general public – including 500 UA students who live in Pima County – are also being tested. The testing is by appointment only, and all of the current appointments have been filled, officials said.

Plans for testing all of the school's 45,000 students and 15,000 employees are "being finalized," UA officials said this week.

"Our plan is to Test, Trace and Treat to present our campus community a flexible and adaptive teaching and learning environment," Robbins said.

The UA's testing effort will begin to expand to health care workers and first responders across Arizona on May 7.

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"We're going to be the first to undertake statewide testing of all health care workers and first responders," said Dr. Michael D. Dake, UA's senior vice president for health sciences. "This is critical to understanding what current immunity might be in our community and state, and it's something no one else is doing."

"We expect it's going to be eye-opening," Nikolich-Žugich said. "We certainly expect that exposure to the virus among front-line health care workers and first responders is going to be significantly higher than the general community."

Classes canceled, salary cuts announced

UA called off all in-person teaching March 15, telling students not to return to campus after spring break the next week. Courses moved online for the remainder of the semester.

Two weeks ago, the university told staff and faculty that pay cuts were taking effect, with furloughs also mandated.

UA is cutting pay and hours for staff and faculty through next June, in "recognition of the extreme financial crisis" created by COVID-19. Salaries will be cut 13-20 percent, through furloughs or overall pay reductions.

The plan will begin May 11 and run through June 30, 2021.

Employees making up to $44,449 will be asked to take 13 days off over the next year, resulting in a pay cut of about 5 percent, while employees at the top of the scale making $200,000 or more will take a 20 percent pay cut.

In an email to staff and faculty this month, Robbins said that the university anticipates losing more than $66 million by the end of the fiscal year, and the most credible projections show the university losing more than $250 million by June 2021.

"To put that in perspective, recall that our budget reallocations this year, 1.5% for academic units and 3.5% for administrative units, as well as RCM and administrative service charge tax increases totaled $30 million. While these changes caused incredible concern throughout our campus, even requiring layoff plans in some administrative areas, we are now predicting losses more than eight times that amount next year," Robbins said in his email.

The cuts include senior vice presidents, and Robbins' own salary, he said. 

Furlough hours can be taken over time, but the university said that all employees must take at least eight hours of furlough time every pay period, beginning May 11 until the required furlough days are fulfilled.

Furloughs taken in increments shorter than a week likely make employees unable to apply for unemployment benefits for that period under the temporary expansion of UI during the pandemic.

Robbins said that the Tucson university had already slashed spending in attempt to address an immediate cash flow shortfall of $40 million, slashing approved building projects worth about $7 million, and expenditures for the university's strategic plan, worth about $22 million. The UA will also "pause" hiring and delay merit increases, saving about $26 million, Robbins said. 

In total, the university expects to crawl back about $93 million in savings from May 11 to the end of next June. 

"I know you must have many questions about how this will affect you and your immediate colleagues, and I truly regret that this will add to an already stressful situation," he said. 

The UA is one of Southern Arizona's largest employers, and the university's economic impact for the state was valued around $4.1 billion in 2017, according to a study completed last year for the Arizona Board of Regents.  In total, the state's public university system generates around 84,000 jobs with $4.6 billion in wages and produces about $11.1 in economic activity for the Arizona economy. 

"We will adapt if conditions change dramatically or we realize significant unexpected new sources of revenue, restructuring savings or expense reductions," Robbins said. While the cuts are "significant," Robbins said it will cover less than 40 percent of the project shortfall through June 2021, even as salaries and benefits are more than 60 percent of the UA's spending.

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Robbins warned that traditional layoffs "may be necessary in the future to ensure the long-term financial stability of the University," but said that a comprehensive layoff was not the right approach for university's "immediate response." 

"With this plan, employees will retain their employment and health care benefits," he said. "We all will share in this as a team and we all will sacrifice as a team, but in a manner that respects your work, your contributions and your compensation and benefits, to the highest extent possible."

"The task ahead is not easy, and it depends largely on the resolution of our public health crisis. Along with our entire leadership team, I am grateful for the tremendous sacrifices you already have made, especially as more will be required of all of us at the university," Robbins said.

TucsonSentinel.com’s Paul Ingram contributed background to this report.

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2 comments on this story

Apr 30, 2020, 1:04 pm
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Done, and thanks.

Apr 30, 2020, 12:55 pm
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Might want to correct that “...projected $250 budget hole…’ typo in the fourth paragraph.

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UA President Robert Robbins had his blood drawn for a COVID-19 antibody test on Thursday.