The Harold Alfond Athletic Center at Thomas College in Waterville. Morning Sentinel file photo

Thomas College has released its safety plan for returning students and staff to campus after implementing distance learning in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Laurie Lachance Submitted photo

The school, located at 180 West River Road in Waterville, has established a timeline of when people can begin to return to campus as well as a strict set of  precautions to ensure the health and safety of the Thomas College community as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The campus will open for in-person instruction and activities in phases:

• Fall pre-season athletes return Aug. 18

• Early Start Academy students return Aug. 26

• New student orientation is scheduled for Sept. 5-7

• The fall academic semester begins Sept. 8

Faculty and staff are returning to campus in phases that began earlier this month, according to Thomas College President Laurie Lachance.

The new safety plan has been in the works since the campus shut down in mid-March.

“As we got students back, virtually that is, and settled into online classes, and figured out how we would do commencement, we turned our attention fully to how we would prepare to bring students back in the fall,” Lachance said during a phone call on Friday. 

According to Lachance, having an in-person experience is part of what makes Thomas College stand out from other schools.

“The experience our students get is very personal,” Lachance said. “They know all their teachers; they’re close to their advisors. … The joy and success of this community is being in person.” 

The precautions included in the safety plan include offering hybrid learning to staff and students; increasing the frequency of cleaning in high traffic areas and bathrooms; installing more hand sanitizer stations around campus; expanding health services to include telehealth options and adding counseling hours; increasing dining space to make social distancing possible; and prohibiting the use of campus facilities by outside groups through the fall semester.

The school has also focused on reducing class sizes to ensure social distancing is possible.

“We’re trying to keep people 6 feet apart so every room in the entire college has an occupancy rate,” Lachance said. “All of the classrooms have been cut in half at least as far as density. We’re really ensuring the faculty and staff feel safe.”

Lachance said instructors have also been given the choice of how they want to conduct their classes during the fall semester.

“Faculty has had the option to pick the way they’ll teach. If they have underlying health conditions or are nervous they can be online,” Lachance said. “If they want to do in-person (instruction), they have the option to move to a bigger room so everyone can spread out or they can split up the class into sections. We’ve given them the chance to have control to make things safe.” 

COVID-19 related signs and plexiglass barriers have also been installed around campus in high traffic areas. The school has also ordered 50,000 disposable face masks, according to Lachance.

The school intends to offer a full semester that begins in the fall and ends in December, but as the pandemic progresses, the possibility of returning to distance learning is still on the table. Especially if students don’t abide by the new protocols as strictly as faculty and staff are, according to Lachance.

“Our ability to truly succeed depends on the students taking it as serious as we are,” Lachance said. 

Thomas’ COVID-19 response team has two main goals, according to Lachance, which are to provide a safe campus environment for all students, faculty and staff and safely reopen campus for on-campus learning for the fall semester.

In order to reach these goals, the team has implemented seven “guiding principles”:

• Make the health and safety of the Thomas community the top priority.

• Follow all local, state and federal guidelines, and comply with CDC recommendations to minimize the risk of exposure.

• Continue the school’s partnership with community hospitals for guidance, support and resources.

• Provide support for students, faculty and staff during the transitional period.

• Commit to remain flexible with changing information and circumstances.

• Continue to communicate with the Thomas community to keep them up to date.

• Maintain “our strong Thomas College community spirit and connection.”

Lachance said additional strategies related to density reduction, testing and contact tracing are in the works.

“We’re taking every step we can,” Lachance said. “We’re trying to balance the science of this with the practicality of this but we’re so excited to get everyone back to campus this fall.”

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