WATERVILLE — Colby College announced Thursday it will ask students to start moving off campus this weekend and resume classes remotely later this month through online courses in response to the spread of coronavirus.

Colby College President David Greene, in an email to the Colby community late Thursday morning, said the college would hold regularly-scheduled classes and activities through Saturday, but then all students who could reasonably move off campus by Sunday should do so.

Greene wrote that the two-week spring break period, which now starts a week earlier than originally scheduled, will allow students to move home when possible and give time for faculty to retool their courses for online and remote delivery. Remote courses will begin on Monday, March 30, and continue through the normal schedule of classes and finals, according to Greene.

Colby’s announcement came just minutes before Maine officials confirmed the state’s first positive case of the virus, which causes the COVID-19 illness. The World Health Organization declared Wednesday that spread of the coronavirus had reached the level of a global pandemic, causing massive disruptions to the global economy, travel and daily life.

“Following our conversations and in-depth analyses of risk scenarios, and seeing how the world has literally changed overnight, I no longer believe that we would be able to adequately secure the health and safety of our community — the most sacred obligation we have to you — if we continued with our residential program,” Greene wrote.

“This is a devastating decision for me to make, and I know it will be even more distressing for many of you,” Greene continued. “My heart breaks for all of you who looked forward to the remainder of this spring semester on campus and all the joys, challenges, and discoveries this time of year typically affords. My greatest joy comes from being with all of you and having this campus alive with the energy and wonders you bring to it. It is deeply painful to imagine the remainder of the spring without all of our students present, and I could not be sorrier that we have to move in this direction.”

About 2,000 students from nearly every state in the U.S. and more than 70 countries attend Colby. About 10% of its students are from Maine and the remainder are from out-of-state, according to the college.

 

STUDENTS SCRAMBLE

On the Colby campus Thursday, students gathered in groups, talking about Greene’s announcement and what it means for them. At the Pugh Center, some students were tearful and hugging each other.

Sitting in the center, located across the road from the president’s office in the Eustis building, senior Ashley Olvera, 21, of Houston, Texas, said she was in a meeting when the announcement was made. When she came out of the meeting, everyone was talking about it.

“I don’t think anybody was expecting to have to leave so suddenly,” Olvera said. “It’s really surprising. I’m thinking of all the things that need to get done between now and Tuesday — getting a flight, funds for the flight …”

Colby College student Mykela Patton, 20, of California, looks to her computer Thursday to remake spring break plans at the college’s Pugh Center in Waterville. The Waterville college announced that students need to start moving off campus by this weekend and resume classes remotely later this month through online courses, in response to the spread of coronavirus. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

Olvera, who is scheduled to graduate this spring, said her family already has flights and a hotel booked for graduation because that must be done long in advance. She said she is worried about whether graduation ceremonies will even happen.

“It’s kind of a bummer,” she said. “I have always imagined this day, and to imagine it’s not going to happen is really tough for my family, especially since we already made the accommodations to come.”

Olvera also was sad. She had canceled a planned trip to Puerto Rico for spring break and said she is not sure what she will do once she goes home to Houston. Her mother works for the state and was asked to work remotely and her father is a construction foreman. That job can not be done remotely, Olvera said, wondering aloud if her father will be laid off.

“It just dawned on me that I have 48 hours to say goodbye to people here who have impacted me over four years,” Olvera said. “I have to figure out what to do with my stuff. I have to call my family. It’s just overwhelming.”

With Olvera was her friend, Jon Banasihan, a student at American University in Washington, D.C., who was on spring break from that institution. He said his spring break had been extended and online classes were to start for him after March 17. He also was not sure if he will be able to graduate in a ceremony at American University.

American University student Jon Banasihan talks about the stress of remaking plans as he visits his friend and Colby College student Ashley Olvera. Banasihan is seen at the college’s Pugh Center in Waterville on Thursday following the announcement that students need to start moving off campus by this weekend and resume classes remotely later this month through online courses, in response to the spread of coronavirus. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

“It’s a bummer for sure,” he said. “A lot of hard work and now we can’t really celebrate it.”

Colby juniors Artricia Nou, 21, and Faiza Qazi, 20, who live in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons downtown, were sitting in the lobby of the Pugh Center, pondering the new developments.

Nou, who lives just outside Philadelphia, said she thought Greene had to make a decision that was best for everyone, and she thinks it was the right one. A biology major who plans to become a nurse, she said she hopes everyone can be there for one another.

“It’s definitely a time for us to get together and support each other and listen,” she said.

Qazi, who works three jobs on campus, including as a lab assistant and Colby Volunteer Center fellow, said having to leave is sad because “this means our junior year is over.”

“This decision seems like it’s a smart one for sure, but it is going to cause a lot of disruption, which is inevitable,” she said. “Obviously, we’re sad, but we don’t know how it (coronavirus) would go anyway, and we’d be putting the whole community at risk if we stayed.”

Qazi, who aspires to be a doctor, said there are a lot of older people in the community, including older faculty members, and if students go away for spring break and return to Waterville, they could carry the virus with them.

“Obviously, President Greene had that in mind,” Qazi said. “If Maine is pretty good with coronavirus right now, we want to keep it that way.”

Colby College students in Waterville walk near Cotter Union, in background, after the announcement Thursday that students need to start moving off campus by this weekend and resume classes remotely later this month through online courses, in response to the spread of coronavirus. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

In downtown Waterville on Thursday, several Colby seniors were getting into vehicles to head back to off-campus housing.

“It’s really upsetting,” Rose Sullivan, 21, of Cleveland, Ohio, said of having to leave Colby so suddenly. A government major, she said she was not surprised by Greene’s announcement.

“I think we all knew,” she said.

Still, she and the others were heading into the unknown after the weekend, uncertain about whether they will be able to take part in commencement activities later in the spring.

“We’re all seniors,” Sullivan said. “It’s the end of our college career. I think we’re just in shock.”

 

‘URGENCY TO ACT’

On Wednesday, the University of Maine system and Bowdoin College both announced similar plans to move students off campus and to have them complete their courses remotely.

Greene said that, before making the decision for Colby, he met with several hundred people to better understand the college’s options, risks and risk-mitigation strategies. He noted that the college does not have the capacity to deal with the challenges a local COVID-19 outbreak would pose, that those who live and work at Colby, whether students or staff, would be vulnerable to the contagion in its close-knit quarters and shared facilities, and that the local health infrastructure would be challenged dealing with a significant number of cases.

He said the decision was made based on the need to protect the community beyond Colby as well, and that the cascading decisions being made by other colleges and domestic and foreign governments also weighed heavily. “Should there be cases in Maine or on campus,” Greene said, “we could quickly lose our authority to act in the best interest of our community, including allowing students and others to leave.” Further he said, “The government would likely assert that authority and thereby preclude us from acting on our community’s behalf.”

The announcement Wednesday night by President Donald Trump to suspend some travel from Europe to the U.S. “is also an indication that similar suspensions could be enacted domestically” and that “creates an urgency to act,” Greene wrote.

“I spoke with students in a variety of settings, faculty in specially called meetings, staff from across the college, parents, alumni, Waterville residents, public health officials, local medical leaders, and national experts on infectious diseases,” he wrote. “I also received hundreds of emails from students and their families.”

Colby College President David Greene 

Greene touched on the question as to whether graduation activities will occur this spring. At the end of his email Thursday, he said: “To our seniors, I hold out hope that the global spread of this virus will subside quickly and that we will be able to welcome you and your families back to campus in May for the full celebration and recognition you deserve through commencement and related activities. We will stay in touch with you as more information becomes available.”

Greene also acknowledged that for some students, moving out on the timeline he designated may create special hardships.

“That’s true for many international students and for others whose particular situations require a different consideration. You will receive information today about a process for requesting on-campus accommodations or a later move date. In addition, we will be working with students who will need assistance with remote learning capabilities to ensure they are able to continue their education in full. I am also setting up an emergency fund that the deans will manage for those who need help with travel and other issues. In the coming days, you will also be receiving information about reimbursement for prorated room and board fees.”

He encouraged those who have questions about the situation to hold them until they have received more detailed information Thursday and directions for accessing campus resources for addressing the variety of issues that are sure to arise for many.

Meanwhile, Thomas College, also in Waterville, issued an update this week on its current discussions about coronavirus, saying the college “understands that the Novel Coronoavirus (COVID-19) is a major health concern for our state and our community.”

“The safety of our students and community is our top priority. In response to this ever-changing situation, Thomas College leadership is monitoring news closely and meeting regularly. Thomas College Health Services is working closely with the Maine Center for Disease Control (CDC) to provide staff, students, and faculty the most up to date information on this rapidly changing situation. For the latest information, please visit the Maine CDC website.”

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