I'm the president of the University of Arizona and we're holding an in-person graduation ceremony next month. Here's how we tackled COVID and got to this point.

  • Next month, the University of Arizona is holding an in-person commencement ceremony. 
  • The university used innovative methods of testing and tracing to stop the spread of COVID-19 last year.
  • The commencement will have a limited attendance and vaccination and testing requirements. 
  • Dr. Robert C. Robbins is the 22nd president of the University of Arizona.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the University of Arizona approaches the finish line of an unprecedented academic semester, I am filled with pride for the remarkable degree of ingenuity responsible for getting our university community to this point. The capstone of those efforts — next month’s planned in-person ceremonies for graduating seniors — will be more than a commencement. In many ways, it will serve as a conclusion of so many of the challenging constraints the coronavirus imposed on the UArizona campus and community.

To be sure, we all must remain vigilant throughout the course of this pandemic — as well as in the aftermath — and meticulously adhere to proven public health measures such as social distancing, mask wearing and vigorous hand washing. Yet, as we look forward to the fall semester, I am filled with optimism about our university’s ability to deliver the in-person academic experience to which most new and returning students are looking forward.

Testing and innovation 

My optimism about the upcoming academic year stems from the success of UArizona’s response throughout the course of the past year. The “3-T” approach we developed to test, trace and treat on our campus quickly proved to be paramount in mitigating the spread of COVID-19; since August 2020, we have administered more than a quarter of a million diagnostic tests. We have worked to triple our testing capacity with a more accurate, and far less intrusive, PCR saline gargle collection method; we used traditional contact-tracing techniques with cutting-edge exposure alerts powered by privacy-preserving Bluetooth technology; and we cared for COVID-positive patients with wraparound wellness services. 

The university’s incident command system, constructed and conducted by former Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, provided an organizational structure for data to be centrally-aggregated and analyzed by working groups of subject matter experts, paving the road back to a safe return. That road included four different learning modalities — in-person, flex in-person, live online, and iCourses — that helped deliver the world-class academic experience our students deserve, wherever they may be in the world.

The same degree of vigor behind the deployment of widespread diagnostic testing, digital tracing, treatment options and innovative learning modalities has also been harnessed to deliver vaccines to our community at large and to help usher in the return of normalcy not only for the University of Arizona, but also for the state of Arizona. To date, UArizona has administered more than 180,000 vaccine doses to residents of Pima County and the state, and our ambition is to continue to vaccinate as many people as we possibly can, as rapidly as we possibly can.

To paraphrase my colleague Chris Kopach – who has been instrumental in the university’s vaccination efforts – the journey “from freezer farms to people’s arms” has been forged by the institution’s insatiable sense of innovation. Other results of that innovation include our groundbreaking wastewater surveillance strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19 in its tracks, the development of one of the country’s most accurate antibody tests, and the recent discovery of a new variant of COVID-19. 

As I wrote on the day of the first Pfizer vaccine delivery in the United States: Back when the world wondered whether a vaccine would ever be developed, UArizona readied for its delivery. We went to work on ensuring that such a historic triumph of science would not be hampered by the tranche of supply chain challenges posed by a vaccine which requires storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius. The outcome of our efforts — fostering a frozen climate in the sweltering heat of the Sonoran Desert — is evidence of our vision of creating solutions to big problems so that life in our communities, in Arizona, and on our planet can thrive.

Looking forward

Much more work remains for us to prepare our plans for the fall and beyond, and our administration will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the transition back to in-person classes is as safe as it is seamless. It is our hope that the forthcoming return of in-person graduation ceremonies — which will be powered by a slew of precautionary and protective measures including limited attendance, staggered check-in, physically-distanced seating, a mask requirement for the duration of the ceremony, and testing and vaccination criteria for participants — will serve as a promising preview of what’s soon in store. 

But as we look forward, it behooves us all to look back on the breakthroughs born out of the University of Arizona’s blend of adaptation and compassion. The foregoing feats give me great hope about our community’s readiness to respond to any challenge we may face in the future. Wildcats at each and every level stepped up to meet this moment with the determination it demands. Next month’s commencement ceremonies, therefore, won’t just celebrate the achievements of UArizona seniors as they prepare to enter the world — they will also commemorate efforts of UArizona scientists who continue to enrich the world.

At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak and early stages of our antibody testing plan to combat it, I wrote that “a blueprint for America’s return to reality has emerged from Tucson.” While much has certainly changed in the year since, our commitment to building out that blueprint – and, in turn, bringing about that return to reality both for our community and for yours – is as strong as ever. The University of Arizona will continue to Bear Down to help our world open back up.

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