Last season, the Bowdoin women’s basketball team won the NESCAC championship and was looking to reach the national championship game for a third straight season when the NCAA shut down all athletics. There will be no fall sports at Bowdoin this year, and winter sports are on hold until at least Jan 1. Brian Beard/CiPhotography.com

Bowdoin College announced Monday it has canceled its fall varsity athletics season and halted all athletic competitions until Jan. 1 because it is keeping the vast majority of students off campus.

The cancellation of athletics is part of Bowdoin’s determination that the coronavirus pandemic required it to go to an online learning model for the fall semester.

“I think for us the decision was more about the entire campus community more so than strictly an athletics decision,” said Bowdoin College Athletic Director Tim Ryan.

The liberal arts college in Brunswick competes at the NCAA Division III level and is a member of the competitive NESCAC conference. Approximately 650 of Bowdoin’s 1,800-plus students are varsity athletes.

“It’s certainly disappointing news for our students and coaches,” Ryan said. “They all put in an incredible amount of work leading up to their seasons.”

Bowdoin is the first NESCAC school, and among the first in the country, to officially state it will not have fall sports.

For Cam MacKenzie, 19, of Rochester, New York, a member of the women’s cross country and indoor and outdoor track teams, it means a second season without athletics. All NCAA sports were canceled across the country in mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly across the United States.

MacKenzie said Bowdoin’s quick decision to limit on-campus activities and cancel fall athletics was a surprise to her and her coaches. Maine has one of the lowest incident rates of COVID-19 cases in the country. Meanwhile, her best friend is, at least for now, intending to be on campus this fall at Columbia University in the heart of New York City.

“It’s hard to see those people getting their announcements (to return to campus) and us not having the same experience,” MacKenzie said. “Still, in a couple of weeks, people might realize this was the best decision.”

MacKenzie is living this summer in Brunswick, doing research while working at an organic farm.

“I do think this was an incredibly tough decision. I was not obviously happy about it but I do think this is probably the best decision they could have made,” MacKenzie said, noting that it would be even worse to get started in the fall with regular on-campus activities only to be sent home again as happened this spring.

In a letter sent to students, parents, faculty and staff and posted on the school’s website, Bowdoin President Clayton Rose explained that with a few specific exceptions, only first-year and transfer students will be on campus this fall. Even those students will learn almost exclusively in an online format and they will be on campus only until the Thanksgiving break, finishing the semester via remote learning.

Without the vast majority of its sophomores, juniors and seniors on campus, competing in college athletics will not be possible. That includes participation in winter sports prior to Jan. 1.

“Unfortunately, we will not be participating in fall and winter varsity sports during the fall semester. This is one of the very disappointing outcomes of our plan,” Rose wrote. “Athletics is a central part of the Bowdoin experience for many of our students and for the College more generally.”

Bowdoin Sports Information Director Jim Caton clarified Monday morning that the school is still hopeful winter sports will be able to resume after Jan. 1, which would allow teams, including the highly successful women’s basketball program, to compete its regular conference schedule and vie for championships. The women’s basketball team won the 2020 NESCAC championship and was looking to reach the national championship game for a third straight season when the NCAA shut down all athletics in mid-March.

Ryan said all of Bowdoin’s employees, including coaches and athletic staff, have been told there will be no furloughs or job losses.

If the Bowdoin administration determines it can safely allow upper-class students back on campus in the spring, then the first-year students will leave campus and learn remotely. Ryan said it is “our hope and plan” that first-year spring sport student-athletes would be allowed to stay on campus in the spring in that scenario.

In the fall, Bowdoin will begin a twice-weekly coronavirus testing protocol for all students and staff at the school.

“We’re fortunate that the institution has the resources to support a robust testing program for those on campus,” Ryan said. “So when we’re in a position to have students back on campus and able to play we will be in a position to do so safely given the testing resources that we have.”

Rose also stated there is some hope of creating yet-to-be determined athletic opportunities for fall sport athletes during the spring. That would seem more likely if several other NESCAC (or in-state) schools follow Bowdoin’s lead and cancel their fall seasons.

The NESCAC has not made any league-wide decisions. In a press release Friday, the league stated it recognized member schools will have to make independent decisions, and the conference was developing plans that could include, “modifications to NESCAC rules to allow institutions flexibility to provide for meaningful experiences for students within school policies and federal, state, and local health directives.”

Depending on NESCAC regulations for coach-athlete interactions, Rose said he is hopeful “that there will be significant opportunities this fall for coaches to work with those athletes who are both on and off campus. Varsity athletes living on campus are likely to have in-person workout opportunities with coaches, but unfortunately, students living off campus will not be permitted to participate in on-campus workouts.”

Bowdoin’s decision to go to an almost exclusively online learning program contrasts with the stated intentions of its NESCAC neighbors in Maine, Bates College of Lewiston and Colby College in Waterville. On June 15, Bates’ president Clayton Spencer told alumni the college plans to reopen to students in early September.

Colby College also indicated last week it expects to be primarily in-person, with an earlier start date and the intention to be finished with its fall semester prior to Thanksgiving.

The University of New England, a private school in Biddeford that competes in the Division III Commonwealth Coast Conference, has stated it will begin on-campus activities as scheduled, Aug. 26.

Contacted Monday, Colby Sports Information Director Danny Noyes said, “Colby does not have a comment on Bowdoin’s position, and will hold comments until after we make our own position public.”

Bowdoin is among the first colleges in the nation to cancel fall athletics. The University of Massachusetts-Boston, a member of the Division III Little East Confernce (which includes the University of Southern Maine) has also canceled its fall sports as a result of its decision to stick with remote learning for the fall semester.

In May, the 23-campus California State University System, which includes 11 Division I and 12 Division II athletic programs, announced it would be a mostly online learning system in the fall semester. The Division II schools, which all compete in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, suspended fall sports but stopped short of canceling the seasons completely.

Outbreaks of positive tests and subsequent quarantining of athletes have been reported at several Division I colleges where athletes have returned to campus, including at major college football programs like LSU and Clemson.

This story was updated June 22 at 11:34 a.m., to clarify that Bowdoin has not canceled its entire winter sports season.

Central Maine reporter Travis Lazarczyk contributed to this story.

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