An extended winter break, expanded testing and a canceled spring break are in store for students as they start their second semester during the pandemic at Maine’s colleges and universities.
Private colleges and the state’s public universities both plan to bring students back in person for the spring semester with safety measures instituted in the fall — including mask use, social distancing and smaller class sizes, along with more remote learning — still in place.
The University of Maine System and Bowdoin and Bates colleges will all reopen later than normal for the spring semester after a prolonged winter break, and they’ll offer a first round of virus testing right away.
When students return to campus, the COVID-19 landscape across Maine will look significantly different than it did in late August and early September.
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The largest outbreak the state was dealing with then was centered in York County, as a result of an Aug. 7 Millinocket-area wedding whose ripple effects extended southward. Twenty to 30 new cases were reported daily in the first 10 days of September, when students returned to dorms and off-campus housing.
On Sept. 1, there had been 4,500 COVID-19 cases in Maine. Today, the state is nearing 20,000 total cases, and hundreds of new cases are reported each day. The surge is expected to continue into January, following a holiday season during which public health officials fear that family gatherings could result in the virus spreading even more.
“We are keenly aware that there’s more infection in the United States in December and likely January, which there wasn’t at the end of August or early September,” University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. “There will be substantially greater testing requirements, given the situation.”
Students will return to Maine’s public universities on Jan. 25, a week later than the typical start of the semester, according to spokesperson Dan Demeritt. While the system tested all residential and out-of-state students before the fall 2020 semester began, Demeritt said the system will expand testing this coming semester.
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Many of Maine’s private colleges already had periodic, universal testing in place, but they will also make changes for the spring 2021 semester. Bates College in Lewiston has decided to start classes on Feb. 17, 2021, extending winter break by about a month.
The Bates semester will stretch into late May, meaning the college will not have its customary short term in May, which marks the second year Bates has had to cancel its short summer program.
“Based on the course of the pandemic nationally and in Maine and consultation with experts, we have concluded that it is not prudent to bring students back to campus as planned in early January,” Bates President Clayton Spencer said in a Dec. 7 message. “Our students would be traveling at or near the height of the current surge in cases, potentially creating health risks for these students and significant challenges for the college and student well-being once they arrive on campus.”
Bowdoin’s semester will start two weeks later than normal, in the first week of February. Only seniors, juniors and sophomores will return to campus for an in-person semester. During the fall, Bowdoin brought back only first-year and transfer students, those unable to attend online classes, senior honors students with approved projects and student residential life staff.
Maine’s seven community colleges — which conducted about 70 percent of their classes online last semester — all have different reopening plans for spring, according to Maine Community College System spokesperson Noel Gallagher.
Southern Maine Community College, for example, will offer most of its courses online, with only courses that require hands-on learning conducted in person. The semester will start on Jan. 19 as scheduled, but hands-on classes won’t be offered in person until Feb. 1, and residential students won’t be allowed to move to the South Portland campus until Jan. 30.
Some Colby College students are still scheduled to return to campus in Waterville in January for the college’s monthlong academic program called Jan Plan, during which students typically take short-term classes, participate in internships or even study abroad. Regular spring semester classes start Feb. 10. Colby has also offered students a chance to use at-home virus testing kits to send in nose swab samples to be analyzed before their arrival on campus.
Maine’s public universities were able to keep case counts relatively low on campus through testing and precautionary measures throughout the fall. Students and staff now are also more used to the safety measures than they were when campuses first reopened in September, and faculty have honed their online teaching skills, said Malloy, the University of Maine System chancellor.
“A lot of what we plan on doing in the spring is based on the success that we had in the fall,” he said. “We also understand that many people have accommodated to different styles of learning during that period of time, and our efforts in regards to different styles of teaching have improved.”