University of Maine students who had to abruptly leave campus five months ago as the coronavirus pandemic struck started returning to dorms for the fall semester on Monday. But this year, masks, social distancing and COVID-19 screening became part of an extended move-in experience.
Even with the new restrictions and safety protocols in place, students said they were glad to be back on campus for the semester set to begin next week that will include a combination of in-person and remote classes for most and will go fully remote after Thanksgiving.
On Monday morning, cars lined up on Rangeley Road, waiting to drive through a large tent where all students returning to campus would be tested for COVID-19 without having to leave their cars.
Then, students and their families proceeded to their dorms to begin moving in.
Students had an hour allotted to move into their residence halls, which they had pre-scheduled to minimize traffic in the dorms. Only one parent was allowed to accompany each student into the building, and everyone had to be masked throughout the process.
The move-in process will continue for a week, with students getting tested before moving into their on-campus housing each morning. Students’ movement on campus will be largely limited to bathroom and meal trips until they receive their virus test results, which can be 24 to 36 hours after they take their tests.
“This is a more spread-out opening we’re experiencing this week,” University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. “We’re trying to keep the density on any given day as low as is practical.”
Around 10:30 a.m., Beth and Joe Bush from Kennebunk helped their son Tripp, a sophomore who was beginning his first year at UMaine as a transfer student, carry his belongings to his fourth-floor dorm room in Hart Hall.
“As a parent, I’m glad they’re taking the precautions they’re taking,” Beth Bush said. “I felt like he should come and start as normally as he could, and we’ll see what happens. We have to move forward.”
At the same time, roommates Mikayla True and Jacqueline Mault were carrying boxes and bags of their belongings up to their shared room, both wearing pink wrist bands showing that they had gotten their COVID-19 tests.
“I get why we have to, but moving in with a mask is hard,” True said. “But I’m glad we get the chance to be on campus again.”
As of Monday, the University of Maine System had conducted almost 1,400 COVID-19 tests through a partnership with ConvenientMD, which is collecting students’ test samples, and The Jackson Laboratory, which is running the laboratory tests. All week, every student who returns to campus to move into a residence hall will get tested.
The university system on Monday reported that a fourth student, a University of Maine School of Law student, had tested positive after three UMaine undergraduate students tested positive last week. The university system also said that it was expanding its testing program to include random samples of 2,000 students and employees every 10 days. Initially, the universities planned to test only students living in residence halls and out-of-state students, as well as some smaller groups of students such as student-athletes.
On Monday, student volunteers were positioned at the entrance of each residence hall in neon vests, directing families and answering questions.
Senior Chase Flaherty has volunteered to help students move their belongings into residence halls every year, which is a moving-in tradition that is deemed unsafe this year under COVID-19 safety protocols.
“Every single year, I’ve helped people move other people in. It’s just what you do at UMaine,” he said. “It’s sad to not be able to help out directly.”
Other changes in store for students this year include a limit on the number of students sharing a dorm room, UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said. The dorms will either be single rooms, which about 650 students have opted for, or double rooms, which approximately 1,600 students have chosen.
“It’s very different in terms of sort of the physical arrangements,” Ferrini-Mundy said of move-in day. “But we have wanted to convey the same warm welcome. We still want them to feel connected and to give them a chance to to do things that people normally do when they first start on a college campus.”
UMaine set up a few tents along Rangeley Road, which leads onto campus, where students could buy college T-shirts and books. Near the tents, UMaine mascot Bananas T. Bear mingled around taking photos with parents and students. And like every other year, students with signs welcoming the campus community back stood on the Brandon M. Silk Memorial Bridge — between downtown Orono and the UMaine campus — cheering when cars drove past them toward UMaine.
This year, those students were spread out over the length of the bridge, more than six feet apart from each other and all wearing masks.
“I wanted to be here and wanted to be part of the campus,” said Rachel Hyatt, a senior from Connecticut and a UMaine student ambassador. “So I’m happy to be home.”