Update: NAU to Switch to Online Classes Over Coronavirus for at Least Two Weeks

Residences at Northern Arizona University's Flagstaff campus.
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Residences at Northern Arizona University's Flagstaff campus.
Update: NAU is switching its classes to online instruction "for at least two weeks" in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, President Rita Cheng announced in an email Thursday afternoon.

The change will go into effect Monday, March 23, when students return from their spring break. Students have been petitioning the school to take this action before spring break, which starts this weekend.

As part of its email, the university also strongly discouraged students from "personal travel outside of Arizona, both domestic and international."

NAU's campus will remain open with campus employees continuing to work, according to the university.

As of now, no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have been detected in Coconino County, where NAU's Flagstaff campus is located. There have been nine confirmed cases in Arizona.

Original story follows:

Canceled classes, move-out mandates, and calls to put coursework online have caused headaches on college campuses in Arizona and nationwide this week, as students adjust to their universities’ attempts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But at Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona University, students are begging their administration to take action.

As of Thursday morning, an online petition asking the administration to move classes online had racked up more than 1,700 signatures and was continuing to gain traction on social media.

“I just wish that NAU would follow in the footsteps of other universities that are taking a solid stance on the virus,” said Darby Shannon Wilson, an 18-year-old freshman living on the Flagstaff campus. “We need to know. I’m disappointed that we don’t.”

Two of Arizona’s biggest public universities, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, both announced they would switch to online classes on Wednesday. The news came hours after Governor Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus, which has sickened at least nine people in Arizona so far.

NAU, the third largest public university in the state with some 28,000 students enrolled, said on Wednesday it was taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We expect our faculty to hold classes and our students to attend classes and complete coursework through the remainder of this week,” University President Rita Cheng told students in an email. “We will communicate if there is a need to adjust operations.”

No confirmed cases of the coronavirus have appeared yet in Coconino County, where NAU’s Flagstaff campus is located. The university’s administration, which assembled a COVID-19 task force to assist in its response, has taken several precautionary measures, like canceling large events, eliminating school trips abroad, and providing hand sanitizer and masks across campus.

Its classes are still held in person — though some professors have canceled classes on their own or told students they can stay home without being marked absent, students who talked to Phoenix New Times said.

“This is a highly fluid situation, and while there is no imminent threat to current operations, I would like to compliment our campus community for the extensive work taking place to ensure we provide essential services, including shifting course delivery to digital modalities after spring break, should the need arise,” Cheng said in her email to students on Wednesday.

But students who have signed the anonymous petition asking the university to switch classes online say they wish the school would take that step already, especially with spring break coming up next week.

“The biggest question that students are asking is, why is NAU waiting until we leave for spring break to potentially switch to online classes?” said 19-year-old freshman Braeden Rice, who learned of the petition on Snapchat and is going home to Newbury Park, California, for his spring break. “My parents are telling me to pack like I’m not coming back.”

Rice, who has asthma, said he’s also worried the school will wait until cases are confirmed in Flagstaff to cancel classes — which could put him at higher risk.

“I’ve had pneumonia and bronchitis several times,” he said. “It is a huge concern for me.”

NAU’s administration didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday morning.