UMaine students disappointed with ‘sudden’ decision to close dorms over virus concerns

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Kelcey Thornton (right), a senior at the University of Maine, gets help from her friend Georgia Baber, a senior who lives off campus, as she moves her belongings out of Oak Hall on the Universtiy of Maine campus Thursday afternoon. The University of Maine System will transition to remote instruction for classes on all campuses for the remainder of the semester, effective March 23. Baber is driving Thornton home to her parents home in Readfield, Maine where she will stay.
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“On normal moving-out days it’s a little bit sad, but mostly happy. This is just all sad.”
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As of 1 p.m. Friday, March 13, test results show that two Maine residents have tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

Georgia Baber and her friend Kelcey Thornton were at Baber’s University of Maine student apartment complex in Orono on Wednesday when they found out through news stories and Facebook that the remainder of their semester would take place online, as the university system announced that all students would have to leave campus by the end of spring break, which begins Monday.

For Thornton, who has no car, this meant she would have to move off campus with all her belongings in the next 10 days. Then came the university email, officially announcing the decision to students.

After receiving the university email, Baber and Thornton gathered Hannaford shopping bags, duffel bags and some of Baber’s luggage and headed over to Thornton’s dorm room in Oak Hall to pack most of her belongings.

“On normal moving-out days it’s a little bit sad, but mostly happy,” Baber said as she watched Thornton carry her TV out of her dorm room toward the car. “This is just all sad.”

Other UMaine students also expressed confusion and frustration this week with the university’s decision to suspend in-person classes and ask students to leave campus within the next 10 days.

Some said they had received few details about the logistical details and that remote learning would negatively affect their education. Many also expressed worry about the financial challenges they might face by losing on-campus employment.

[Here’s what has been canceled or postponed in Maine due to coronavirus]

On Thursday, after Gov. Janet Mills announced the Maine CDC had the first presumptive positive case in the state for COVID-19, Baber and Thornton were driving to southern Maine in a car packed to the roof with their belongings, unsure of how the rest of their college education would unfold.

A university official has said it will consider students’ requests to remain on campus with restricted activity on a case-by-case basis if there are “extenuating circumstances,” but has not elaborated on what they might be.

“We have 5,800 students in our residence halls,” spokesperson Dan Demeritt said. “If we can reduce that number by 75 percent, it significantly reduces exposure threats.”

Over the next week, each campus will establish a procedure by which students can request to remain at their respective universities. Demeritt said that reaching out to student life offices would be a good place for a student to start.

Campuses will stay open with university employees, so Demeritt said students who work on campus might be able to keep working, based on each employer’s decision.

“We have a lot of work to do to address individual students’ concerns, but we’ll be working very hard on that in the next two weeks,” Demeritt said.

On Thursday, the university system announced that students could request to get a prorated portion of their residential and dining fees refunded.

Senior Cody Embelton, who works two jobs on campus, said the university’s notice is upsetting for many reasons.

“I’m from Aroostook County, and I kind of really don’t like to go home because I’m queer identified, and I don’t feel I can be an open and authentic person when I’m at home,” Embelton said. “I’m losing wages. I’m losing housing. It’s a lot of very sudden what ifs that I was not expecting or prepared to deal with this semester.”

Embelton is in his final semester, and his biggest worry is failing even one class.

[Do you have questions about the coronavirus? Ask us here.]

“If I fail any one of those classes, I’m not going to have financial aid from the institution if I have to come back,” Embelton said. “I’m not going to get my degree, maybe ever. Literally failing one class could knock me out irreparably.”

Senior Gabriela Reyes, who is from Florida, said the logistics of moving so soon seem daunting to her since she doesn’t have a car or a way to fly home with all her stuff, but she said the worst part about the abrupt change is the friends she has to say goodbye to.

“Leaving campus means leaving my friends, leaving my roommates and leaving all the amazing people that I’ve had the privilege to meet,” she said. “It’s a really disappointing way to end what I consider the best four years of my life.”

When senior Sophia Palangas found out that her friends would be leaving, she decided to have an unofficial graduation ceremony on the steps of the Fogler library just for her friends. She made a Facebook group announcing the event for Friday afternoon, not knowing that hundreds of other students would be interested in attending.

As of Thursday, Dean of Students Robert Dana had agreed to serve as a commencement speaker for the event. Palangas said there would be a musical performance by students and the possibility of having the event catered.

“It was just going to be like a really casual ceremony, like a moment for people to say goodbye to their friends,” she said. “But everyone wants to come together as a community for one last time and leave on a positive note.”

Dana said that he wants to honor the ritual of graduation that is important to so many students.

“For our graduating students their early departure, while understood, is heartbreaking and difficult,” he said. “I will bring them my well wishes, my hopes for the future, and my deep thanks for their participation here and all they’ve brought us to make this a wonderful community where kindness, caring and compassion truly matter.”

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