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A shorter fall semester on campus, smaller class sizes and sparsely populated residence halls are some changes students can expect when they return to Maine’s public universities this August.
The University of Maine System released its reopening plans for the fall semester on Wednesday, with measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus as students return to the campuses they left in March, when they switched to remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester.
Classes will start on Aug. 31, a normal start date for the fall semester. However, students will leave campus by Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, and finish the last two weeks of the semester remotely to minimize the risk that students could pick up the virus while traveling and transmit it once back on campus.
Every campus will customize reopening plans based on the general guiding principles developed by advisory boards that have been guiding the 30,000-student university system’s reopening plans.
But many of the same measures will be in place across the system. The universities, for example, will remove seats from classrooms to make class sizes smaller and keep students at a safe distance from each other, replace their bathroom air dryers with paper towels, provide sanitation stations on campuses with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and install a variety of physical barriers across campus to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
While reopening plans could change before the start of the fall semester based on infection trends, the universities’ in-person return is only possible because “our state leaders and public health authorities have kept the coronavirus from spreading unchecked,” University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said.
That means “we have an opportunity to come together for Maine and our students this fall with science-informed plans to protect student health and limit the spread of infection on campus and in our communities,” he said.
Part of the effort to limit the virus’ spread involves widespread testing on university campuses through a partnership the university system has formed with ConvenientMD, which will collect samples, and The Jackson Laboratory, which will test specimens at its Connecticut lab that has been ramping up test capacity throughout the spring.
All students, staff and faculty coming from outside the state will have to test negative for the coronavirus when they return to campus. Under Maine rules, they can also test negative for the virus within three days of returning to Maine. In addition, every student who plans to stay on campus in dorms will be tested, regardless of whether they’re from Maine or outside the state, Malloy said.
While on campus, students will be required to wear face coverings. Already, about 77 percent of University of Maine System classes have 15 or fewer students, so physical distancing requirements won’t affect the size of most classes. Some larger classes, however, will only be conducted online.
If students do not want to return to campus, they will be able to choose from a limited list of courses to take entirely online, Malloy said.
The university system is announcing its reopening plans the same week other Maine universities have released theirs. Public and private universities in the state have collaborated on reopening plans, and some of their plans look similar.
Like the University of Maine System, Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges will end in-person instruction before Thanksgiving. They’ll have similar social distancing rules in place.
But there will be key differences. Students at Unity College, for example, won’t return to campus at all for the coming academic year. And Bowdoin College will only reopen its Brunswick campus to some students this fall — only first-year and transfer students, those unable to attend online classes, senior honors students with approved projects and student residential life staff.
The smaller, private colleges will also test more of their students, and test them more often, than the state’s universities will.
Colby College, for example, will test all students, faculty and staff three times a week in the initial weeks back on campus, and twice a week for the rest of the in-person fall semester. Bowdoin also plans tests for everyone on campus at least twice weekly.
“I doubt that we will be doing some of the things that other universities are doing, for instance, weekly testing,” Malloy said. “I think what we’ll be doing is testing a certain number of students on an ongoing basis so we have a feel for what’s going on.”