Cooper Bennett, a senior at the University of Maine, raises his hand to ask a question during an on-campus hybrid class on Nov. 20, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

University of Maine students might sit unmasked with classmates in neighboring seats in full lecture halls next semester. They might attend sporting events and performances and hang out with big groups in dorms. And COVID-19 tests might no longer be part of their weekly schedule when they return to campuses in fall.

That’s according to the plan Maine’s public universities expect to have in place for the fall 2021 semester. The University of Maine System announced its preliminary fall semester plans on Wednesday, focusing on a return to a traditional, pre-pandemic college experience.

“With public health restrictions easing, and with new confidence stemming from the growing numbers who can and will receive the pandemic-ending vaccines that are available, it feels like we can finally say that the pandemic’s grip is loosening,” Chancellor Dannel Malloy said in a message to staff and students.

The biggest challenge higher education institutions have faced over the last year has been the physical distancing requirements that have forced the UMaine System to reduce class sizes, offer some classes remotely and ban large gatherings in dorms and even off campus, according to university system spokesman Dan Demeritt.

“With vaccinations and the track that we’re on in Maine, we believe we’ll be in a position where we will not be hindered by that type of safety practice, which has been so limiting in terms of our ability to provide large group activities and classes for people,” Demeritt said. “Masks wouldn’t be as limiting as the physical distancing. If we’re going to pick one or the other, college would look like college if we didn’t have the six-foot distance requirement.”

The university system will still follow whatever state guidelines are in place in September, which might include monitoring for COVID-19 infections. The primary reason the system is planning on eliminating safety protocols that have been in place for the past year is Maine’s vaccination plan.

“COVID-19 vaccinations are important for our overall health and community well-being,” said UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy. “Knowing that all of our adult-aged students, faculty and staff will be eligible for a vaccine by July has us planning confidently for a rich, active and in-person campus experience this fall.”

The system is promoting vaccination through campus visits by Malloy, but it has stopped short so far of requiring vaccinations. It is encouraging that all students and employees be vaccinated when they become eligible.

The campus community will have to continue adhering to distancing, masking and weekly COVID-19 testing for the remainder of the current semester, according to a campus announcement on Wednesday.

The test positivity rate across the UMaine System over the past 14 days is 0.17 percent, representing 27 positive results among approximately 16,257 tests.