Arizona’s major universities will open for the fall semester. Here’s how and when they plan to do it

The spread of COVID-19 in Arizona is much wider than it was in March, when Arizona colleges shifted to online classes mid-semester to help curb the disease’s spread.

But all intend to go back to school in person at some point in the coming months.

Arizona’s COVID-19 situation started spiraling, making it a new hotspot and stretching hospital resources thin. In the past few weeks, Arizona’s cases and hospitalizations have declined slightly, but are still at very high levels.

Already, Grand Canyon University and Northern Arizona University have pushed back their in-person fall start dates to allow case numbers to decline. They will start the semester online, then move to in-person classes later.

Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and the Maricopa Community Colleges are starting their semesters in person, with offerings of online, in-person and hybrid courses.

All colleges will look different than they did last fall, before COVID-19 was widespread in the United States. Students and faculty can expect to see social distancing, masks, limited class sizes and extensive sanitizing of common areas.

These colleges face pressures of all kinds in decisions to reopen — financial, educational, political and societal. Enrollment in some cases may be lower than expectations, crunching budgets. NAU and UA have had layoffs and planned furloughs in response to potential shortfalls.

Some students say they want to return to campus and that they learn better in person, while others have said they’re too concerned about safety measures to take classes in person. Faculty and staff, who are often older than traditional students and could have higher risk for complications if they contract the virus, have said they’re worried about safety as well.

Arizona colleges have worked on return-to-campus plans for months. Here are the basics of major colleges’ plans for fall classes.

Arizona State University

When do classes start: Aug. 20 is the first day of the fall semester. Fall break, which was originally scheduled for Oct. 12-13, was canceled to reduce travel risk, according to the university website.

Online or in person options: Classes will be taught in three ways in-person, ASU Sync and online. 

University officials said the majority of all courses offered in the fall will be a blend of in-person and ASU Sync, meaning students will alternate between attending class in-person and through a live lecture via zoom.

About 2% of all fall courses, including labs, clinical experiences and hands-on fine arts courses, that are not conducive to remote learning will be offered exclusively in-person. Courses with more than 100 students enrolled will only be offered via ASU Sync, the university said. As of Wednesday, that amounted to less than 4% of courses, they said. 

What safety precautions are being taken: ASU announced health guidance for the university in June, which includes mandatory face coverings on campus, daily health screenings and social distancing. Face coverings are mandatory for all students, employees and visitors to the university in all indoor spaces and outdoor spaces where social distancing is not possible, such as sidewalks, bike racks, parking garages and public transportation, ASU officials said.

In addition to cleaning classrooms daily, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes will be available to students in classrooms. All on campus students, faculty and staff will receive a “Community of Care kit” with a thermometer and two face masks, the university said in its announcement of CARES Act funds distribution plans. 

“Individuals or groups choosing to ignore the rules not only jeopardize their own health, but the health of others and will be subject to a range of appropriate disciplinary action under the Student Code of Conduct,” the university said Wednesday. “We need all members of the ASU community to do their part and adhere to public health guidelines in order to have a successful semester.”

On-campus social gatherings that are not in compliance with health guidance for the fall semester are not allowed, the university said, adding that they also plan to take action against any off-campus social guidelines that are “purposefully designed to disregard public health protocols.” It’s a policy that has been in place at the university since before the COVID-19 pandemic, they said. 

Testing plans: ASU offers a free saliva-based COVID-19 test to all students and employees. University officials said results are typically available in about 24 to 48 hours. 

There is no limit currently as to the number of free tests a person can get, they said. 

What’s happening with dorms: About 15,000 students are currently signed up to live in on-campus housing, university officials said. It’s a number they say is in line with previous years. 

Early move-in for residential assistants and other arrangements will begin Aug. 1. Maricopa County-based students will begin move-in the week following, on Aug. 5-9.

The university announced Thursday that all students living in university housing will need to test negative for COVID-19 with a PCR test prior to move-in. They are required to upload proof of the test via the ASU Services Patient Portal at least 48 hours prior to their scheduled move-in time, the university said. All other students are encouraged, but not required to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus. 

Visitors will not be allowed in residence halls and both indoor and outdoor community spaces may be restricted depending on local conditions, ASU said. 

On-campus dining will be takeout only with prepackaged, disposable utensils. Touchless payments, physical distancing in lines, Plexiglass barriers and extended hours will also be implemented in dining halls, according to the university website.

ASU also plans to maintain vacant rooms in residence halls for isolation. The university said they will communicate directly with students about isolation requirements, medical advice and information on their recent activities and contacts. The school will then check-in with students who have tested positive at least daily, they said. 

What school leaders are saying: ASU President Michael Crow said university officials have worked around the clock to ensure all ASU campuses are prepared to transition into the upcoming academic year. 

Crow cautioned that a “dramatic shift” in the virus could change operational plansand said university is prepared to “adapt and pivot,” if needed. 

“Campus life will look different in many ways and we will all need to make adjustments,” Crow said last week. “But with the cooperation and care of every member of the ASU community, I am confident that we will have a successful fall semester.”

University of Arizona

When do classes start: Aug. 24, 2020 is the first day of the fall 2020 semester at University of Arizona. Though, UA President Robert Robbins said Thursday in a weekly reentry briefing that only about 5,000 students will attend in-person classes in the first week. 

Robbins said the university plans a staged launch of in-person classes. In the first week of classes, he said only students in essential in-person classes, such as labs or fine arts courses, as well as classes scheduled to be held outdoors will start in-person instruction. All other classes will be online, he said. 

The following week, in-person or flex in-person courses with 30 or fewer students will start in-person courses. Robbins said the university expects about 14,000 individuals to be on campus in week two. 

All remaining in-person and flex in-person courses will start in-person instruction in the third week of the semester, he said.

All classes will end the semester online after Thanksgiving break, according to the university’s website.  

Online or in person options: The university plans to offer classes in four ways: in-person, flex in-person, live online and iCourse. About 50% of courses in each department are expected to be offered in-person, according to an university official.

Information about how each course will be offered is published online for students via their university web portal, they said.

Testing: The university is implementing a plan called ‘Test, Trace, Treat,’ which details plans for COVID-19 testing, contract tracing and treatment. 

Three different tests are available at UA to diagnose and track the virus: an antibody test, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test and an antigen test.The PCR test, which is the most accurate test for current presence of COVID-19, will be used for individuals showing symptoms of the virus. The antigen test, which also tests for current presence of COVID-19, will be used to test as many students, faculty and staff as possible when they return to campus. The antibody test is currently available for essential workers, but the university plans to have the test available to students and faculty soon, according to the university website.

What safety precautions are being taken: UA has multiple campus reentry working groups who have worked to develop a variety of safety precautions and procedures, according to the university website. 

Face coverings are required on-campus in buildings and outdoor spaces where physical distancing is not possible, the university said. Modified traffic flows, one-way indoor pathways and a reduction of students in classrooms by at least 50% also were implemented to increase social distancing, they said. 

The university has also engineered improved air filtration and increased fresh air ventilation in classroom, according to the website. All classrooms will be cleaned at least five days a week and disinfectant and hand sanitizer will be available throughout campus, they said. 

University officials acknowledged at a June 16 campus reentry meeting that there were concerns voiced about students following necessary public health measures. They said student ambassadors from multiple health departments and programs at the university will lead efforts to educate, inform and encourage peers to follow guidelines. 

What’s happening with dorms: Move in will start Aug. 14 and last through Aug. 22, according to the university website. 

UA President Robert C. Robbins said Thursday about 5,500 students are still planning to live on campus, about 1,100 fewer students than Robbins said had made deposits for university housing during a June 16 briefing.

The university announced Tuesday that students who have already paid their deposit have three options: living on campus for the full academic year, late arrival and canceling their housing application. Students also have the option to defer their enrollment, the school said.

All students who elect to live on campus are required to take a free, on-campus antigen test, which will be administered upon check-in. If a student tests negative, they will then be allowed to move-in to their dorm. Any student who tests positive will go to an isolation dorm for a 10-day isolation, the university said.

What school leaders are saying: Robbins continued to emphasize Thursday that the university will to monitor public health conditions and adjust reentry plans, if necessary. 

“We have a plan and we have confidence that our students, faculty and staff will carry it out,” Robbins said in UA’s weekly reentry meeting. “But if we see noncompliance or if the public health conditions require it, we will shut this down.”

People who don’t feel comfortable returning to campus will not be forced to do so, he added. 

“There are some people who don’t want to come back to campus and I understand that,” Robbins said. “We are not forcing anyone to come back on campus. If you choose to do it, we welcome you and these are the guidelines we will use going forward.”

Northern Arizona University

When do classes start: Aug. 12 online, Aug. 31 in person. Northern Arizona University originally planned to resume in person instruction on Aug. 12, but pushed back the start date in reaction to “input from a range of stakeholders” regarding the university’s reentry plans, according to the school’s July 24 announcement.  

Online or in person options: Remote delivery through NAUFlex, which features live online lectures through Zoom or Collaborate Ultra, will be the primary mode of instruction through Aug. 28, NAU said in the Friday announcement.

In-person courses will resume Aug. 31 with students alternating between attending class remotely via NAUFlex or in-person based on a schedule determined by the professor. Students who want to remain remote for the entire semester will need to submit a NAUFlex Full Remote Request form available on the university’s website by Aug. 3.

Some classes might have required in-person elements. Professors will decide how much in-person instruction is necessary for their classes, the university said.

What safety precautions are being taken: NAU is asking students to complete a daily self-screening checklist, answering questions about potential symptoms for COVID-19. If they answer “yes” to any of the questions on the checklist, they are expected to stay home and attend class remotely.

The school also is asking students to wear a mask in buildings, physically distance, wash hands frequently and complete an online training about a safe return to campus.

Most public spaces will be disinfected at least daily, in accordance with the university’s updated cleaning procedures. Dining areas, for example, will be cleaned at least three times daily.

Testing plans: Campus Health is offering on-campus nasal swab COVID-19 tests, but they are only available to individuals who are symptomatic or who have potentially been exposed, according to the university website. Fees for the test are dependent on the individual’s health care provider, NAU said.

The university announced Friday that all students should be tested for COVID-19 prior to arrival and all students who plan to live on-campus will be required to test negative prior to move-in.

What’s happening with dorms: The university pushed back move in dates after announcing the delay of in-person courses. The new move-in dates are Aug. 19 to Aug. 30.

Students will receive an email by July 29 to select a move-in appointment window. Prior to move in, students are required to prove that they tested negative for COVID-19 after July 24. They are then expected to quarantine from the day they test to the day they arrive on campus with a minimum of 10 days in between, according to the university website. The university says it is in the process of creating a portal to submit test results.

Students who plan to live in on-campus housing and who are unable to get tested for COVID-19 prior to move-in will need to quarantine in their residence hall upon arrival until they receive a negative test result.

NAU also is attempting to decrease density in on-campus housing. Triple rooms are no longer available. Most students will share a room with one other person.

What school leaders are saying: NAU President Rita Cheng in her July 24 update acknowledged some people might be disappointed in the adjustment of plans for the start of the fall semester, but emphasized that the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and the community is the university’s priority.

“In these complex and challenging times, we are committed to our educational mission and we are prioritizing a healthy living and learning environment that will allow our students to realize their aspirations at NAU,” Cheng said.

Grand Canyon University

When do classes start: Sept. 8 online, Sept. 28 in person. Grand Canyon University originally planned to start classes on Aug. 24, but pushed their in-person start date back to give Arizona time to reduce its COVID-19 cases.

Online or in person options: Students will start courses Sept. 8 and spend the first three weeks of school online until transitioning to in-person classes. In-person classes will be a “physically distant blended model of instruction” until the end of the semester, Dec. 18, GCU said in mid-July.

Students can’t start online then switch to in-person classes later in the semester, though. GCU said the face-to-face classes have a physical distancing requirement that decreases class sizes which can’t be overridden.  

GCU has a robust online class offering already because most of its students attend classes online regardless of the pandemic.

GCU is on pace to have its largest incoming class, with more than 8,000 students associated with the Phoenix campus newly starting this fall and 24,000 overall students associated with the campus, GCU spokesman Bob Romantic said. Students have the choice to go to in-person classes, blended learning or online, he said. A few thousand of those traditional students may choose to go online-only for the fall semester, he said.

What safety precautions are being taken: GCU has had 11 work groups formulating its plans for the past few months, Romantic said.

The university is making its own personal protective equipment, including masks.

Cloth masks are required in classrooms, campus restaurants, indoor community spaces and outdoor settings where distancing of at least 6 feet isn’t possible, Romantic said. 

GCU expects dorms to be near capacity, so the campus hotel may operate as additional housing for those who become ill. The GCU Hotel closed on July 1 to the public and has already been in use to house students who are required to quarantine when they arrive on campus, Romantic said.

Shared spaces and events will be scaled down or distanced, and class sizes will be reduced to allow for spacing.

In a typical semester, thousands of GCU students would attend a weekly chapel service in the GCU Arena. This semester, the service will be spread among four venues, Romantic said. Starting later also allows for more outside events since the weather is not as hot, he said.

Testing plans: The university can conduct 10,000 COVID-19 tests per month, Romantic said.

Students who are symptomatic or identified through contact tracing as a high-risk exposure to a positive case will be tested, Romantic said. Students can also voluntarily request a test. The university may do surveillance testing if there’s a high concentration of positive cases in a particular area, like a dorm floor.

Once students arrive on campus, the university will be able to conduct diagnostic and antibody tests with quick turnaround times, Romantic said.

What’s happening with dorms: Dorms are expected to be near capacity. Move-in dates will be during the week of Sept. 21 and by appointment.

Students will get an email by Aug. 5 telling them how to pick a move-in appointment. Once they arrive on campus, a group of two to three student leaders will show them their room and check them in. If they want, the leaders can help with unloading and bringing items to a student’s room.

Fall semester housing costs will be pro-rated to account for the later move-in date, GCU said. Students can also reduce their meal plans, if they’d like.

What school leaders are saying: In July updates to students, GCU said it was working to make sure students were safe, while balancing educational and financial considerations.

Pushing the in-person start date back made sense for those reasons, GCU said.

“With the surge of positive coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Arizona during the past 30 days, it is incumbent on the University to become part of the solution that puts our state in a better place,” a July 22 update said. “We also want to ensure our students have the best possible experience once they arrive on campus, and we think we can better accomplish that with the adjusted fall semester timeline. The modified dates will have a significant financial impact on GCU, but in times like these, everyone must make sacrifices for the greater good and the University must do its part.”

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook. Contact Grace Oldham at or on Twitter at @grace_c_oldham.

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