UNR President Sandoval defends in-person classes amid surge

RENO, Nev. (AP) — University of Nevada, Reno President Brian Sandoval is defending his decision to begin the spring semester with mostly in-person classes this week after a group of faculty members called for a two-week classroom closure in the face of unprecedented growth in COVID-19 cases.

In an interview with KRNV-TV, Sandoval pointed to high vaccination rates among students and faculty and the desire from students to have in-person learning.

“That is the number one thing that we heard from our students, that they want the in-person (learning), they want to be in class, they want to be person-to-person with the faculty,” Sandoval said Tuesday as the new semester began.

The former Republican governor’s push for in-person learning comes one week after he urged a state health board to reimplement a vaccine mandate for students.

Sandoval said roughly 90% of students are vaccinated against COVID-19, a vaccination rate that is about 26% higher than the vaccination rate in Washoe County. He said 98% of faculty and staff are vaccinated. Throughout Nevada, 52% of individuals are fully vaccinated.

As of Wednesday, the local COVID-19 “risk meter” for the Reno-Sparks area combining multiple statistical categories is in the most serious “purple category” — the worst it’s been.

In southern Nevada, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is holding about 60% of its classes in-person. Epidemiologist Brian Labus told FOX-5 that there weren’t signs that community spread originating at universities was affecting the broader Las Vegas metro population.

Researchers with Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative tracked 589 colleges plans for the spring semester underway are primarily or fully online, while 524 colleges plan for primarily or fully in-person learning.

Nevada state biostatistician Kyra Morgan told lawmakers in a committee meeting on Thursday that the variant-driven growth rate of new cases was slowing. She said 20 to 49 year old people accounted for 71% of new cases since December 20 and that hospitalizations statewide had increased by 165%, mostly due to an influx of new patients in southern Nevada.

“I am hopeful that we are going to see the other side of this sooner than later,” she said.

Hospitalizations tied to the virus have doubled over the past two weeks and the seven-day moving average for new cases per day are roughly double what they were during the previous peak surge in November 2020, Health District Officer Kevin Dick said.

Though 43% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in Nevada are vaccinated against the virus, Dick cautioned against questioning vaccine efficacy based on that statistic; amid the omicron variant-driven surge, hospitals are testing asymptomatic individuals who come seek unrelated treatment and then documenting them as COVID-19 patients and isolating them in infection wards.

“If you just look at that statistic of 43% vaccinated, I don’t think it reflects the rate of severe cases that are vaccinated. The vast majority of the severe cases are unvaccinated,” he said Thursday.

The faculty members represented by the Nevada Faculty Alliance who called for a two-week pause classroom teaching said in a letter to members they were protesting the university’s decision to begin the semester in person.

“We call on the administration to move delivery of all classes online for at least the first two weeks of the semester to protect the health of all members of the UNR community, limit the strain on our overworked healthcare workers, and preserve hospital capacity for those who need it,” they wrote in the letter to members.

Sandoval said he values their input and will continue to work with them.

“I encourage them to work with the provost if there are situations associated with a classroom, if there is a situation where multiple students may have tested positive,” Sandoval said.

Students were required to be vaccinated to sign up for spring semester classes until Dec. 21, but the mandate was dropped after a party-line vote by a Nevada legislative committee. Faculty and staff are required to have the COVID-19 vaccine.