University of Maine Senior Lizzy Gillen takes viewers on a virtual tour of the UMaine campus. With the campus shut down for the spring semester, accepted students can't visit as they decide whether to enroll for the fall semester. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

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The University of Maine’s campus remains closed, but prospective students can still tour the buildings, classrooms and dorms online.

As part of the virtual tour, UMaine Senior Lizzy Gillen takes viewers to some of the most commonly used buildings on campus, including the Fogler Library, Memorial Union and New Balance Student Recreation Center. In the five-minute video, she explains each building, including characteristics such as the library’s three floors designated by the amount of talking allowed. Viewers also see dorm rooms, dining halls and classrooms.

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The coronavirus pandemic upended the spring semester for current students at UMaine and colleges across the country, sending instruction online after an in-person start to the semester. The closed-down campuses have also affected high school seniors who are deciding where to attend college in the fall and younger students starting to explore their college options.

The virtual tour is one way UMaine is trying to make up for the lost in-person opportunities prospective students might have had. The university is also offering department-specific tours and allowing prospective students to connect with professors using the videoconferencing tool Zoom.

“Students are actually getting to see things they wouldn’t necessarily get from a live tour. Those are restricted to campus,” said Matt LeClair, social media manager for UMaine. “Here we can show the vast resources UMaine has to draw from.”

In admissions offices, higher education institutions in Maine are preparing to be more flexible when evaluating applicants’ academic performance from this semester of remote learning.

None of Maine’s seven public universities will require that students applying next school year take either the SAT or ACT standardized tests, said University of Maine System spokesman Dan Demeritt. That policy change was driven by the cancellation of both tests this spring.

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Some UMaine system campuses were already test-optional. Other Maine colleges, such as Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, have not required standardized tests for a number of years.

But the colleges might not have traditional grades from this semester on which to base applicants’ performance. Some public school districts have adopted pass-fail grading for the spring semester, for example, while others have different arrangements.

The University of Maine System will accept “pass” grades during this semester for any classes that require certain grade prerequisites.

The university system will also work with accepted students if their financial circumstances — and, thus, their ability to afford college — have changed due to the coronavirus, Demeritt said.

At Colby, a single semester without conventional grades shouldn’t affect the admissions process, said Matt Proto, vice president for enrollment and communications and dean of admissions.

“We don’t just have one semester to evaluate a student on but seven semesters, so it’s one moment in time,” he said. “Many of the things we’re looking for don’t change. What is really important is, we keep in mind the context of the pandemic as we review the applications.”

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The largest effect right now of coronavirus-driven social distancing measures, Proto said, is that accepted students can’t visit the campus as they decide whether to attend in the fall. However, Colby is also connecting students virtually to professors, current students and admissions staff.

Neither Colby nor UMaine has pushed back the May 1 deadline by which accepted students must claim their place in the upcoming class. However, UMaine has reduced its enrollment deposit from $300 to $50.

It is too early to tell how coronavirus will affect college enrollment in the fall semester, when in-person classes will have resumed, according to UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy and Proto.

“We’re looking at both incoming students and retention of students. Will they come back?” Ferrini-Mundy said. “We are hopeful, but we are watching very carefully because nationally it’s such an unsettled time it’s difficult to tell what will happen with college enrollment.”

The university could even see enrollment grow in some graduate programs, such as teacher education and business, as it does during periods of high unemployment.

“Historically those are areas which are career specific which sometimes do grow during these kinds of crises,” she said.

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