Some University of Maine students who learned last week they would be able to return to the Orono campus in person this fall are voicing frustration and concern after finding out that many of their classes will be delivered remotely or have online components.

Students normally sign up for their fall classes in the spring, but following last week’s announcement from the university system about reopening, faculty and staff have been making coronavirus adjustments.

The University of Maine campus in Orono. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer, file

Students and parents are starting to see those changes reflected in class schedules, and some have been concerned to see classes they thought would be in person being taught remotely. They were told last week about the university system’s plans to implement testing and other protocols to keep the coronavirus outbreak in check.

“Some students have been very understandably upset,” said Harrison Ransley, the student body president. “Some are wondering, ‘What’s even the point of us going back?’ Other students, though, are sort of presenting it as, ‘The university is doing the best they can.’ Some students do feel it is important to go back and have whatever in-person classes are available.”

Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Faye Gilbert said there has been some confusion about the changes and her office is working to communicate with families. The university is still finalizing schedules and the method in which classes will be delivered, a process that is expected to be completed near Aug. 1. Classes start Aug. 31.

“We will do everything we can within the guidelines of the system to make sure (students) have impactful in-person experiences and that they have high quality distance experiences if that’s what they need to progress,” Gilbert said. “For 150 years we’ve been meeting students where they are. This fall is going to be a little different but we’re still very determined to be sure every one of them can progress.”

The University of Maine System announced last week that it would bring students back to campuses across the state this fall under a plan that relies heavily on screening for COVID-19 infection and isolating anyone who is exposed to the coronavirus.

Every student, faculty and staff member from outside Maine will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test in hand at the start of the semester on Aug. 31. All students who live in dormitories will be tested for COVID-19, regardless of where they’re from, and ongoing testing is expected throughout the semester.

The system has formed  partnerships with The Jackson Laboratory and ConvenientMD to conduct testing at all seven campuses and the University of Maine School of Law. The university says the testing strategy, which will cost $1 million, is key to allowing the system to reopen safely for over 30,000 students.

Decisions on how courses will be delivered are being made by faculty, department chairs and deans. The university is also taking into account physical distancing requirements, requests from students who have asked for more online and remote learning and the needs of faculty and staff.

A survey conducted prior to the release of last week’s re-opening plans by the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, a faculty union, found that 43 percent of responding faculty at UMaine wanted to return to face-to-face instruction while 57 percent did not. About 49 percent were making plans to return to face-to-face instruction while about 51 percent were not. The 257 respondents represent nearly half of UMaine’s full-time faculty.

According to the university, 8 percent of classes are currently scheduled to be taught asynchronously online, meaning students can access the materials at any time and work from anywhere. That number is not vastly different from the normal percentage of online classes, Gilbert said.

However, students will see more remote and hybrid learning this fall, according to current projections. About 58 percent of classes are scheduled to involve in-person instruction.

That includes 23 percent that will be delivered either traditionally or using a hybrid method where, for example, a large class that meets three days per week would be divided into three cohorts of students that each attend in person one day per week. On the other two days the students could watch a livestream or recording.

Thirty-five percent of classes will be direct face-to-face instruction or small groups such as seminars, field experience or independent studies.

About 23 percent of classes will be delivered remotely, meaning connections and discussions are delivered in other platforms, such as Zoom, with opportunities for students to meet in person for assistance in small group discussions.

The format for 8 percent of classes is still undetermined.

The University of Southern Maine, where projections also are not yet finalized, is currently planning to include face-to-face instruction in 42 percent of classes, though that could include a blend of online or at-a-distance instruction. About 35 percent of students at USM are nontraditional, and the university said that led to an increase in demand for online and remote courses.

The changes have been met with criticism from some students in Orono, who were expecting an in-person return would mean that classes would look different – such as smaller class sizes and masks required – but would still be held primarily in person.

Tuition at UMaine is increasing 2.7 percent for in-state students and 2.5 percent for out-of-state. There are no plans to offer a reduction for classes that are taught online or remotely.

Ransley, a senior majoring in political science and economics, said he is still sorting out his schedule for next year but it appears most of his classes will be online in some capacity.

“It’s not great for me,” he said. “I’m definitely what you would call an extrovert. I love interacting with people and meeting new people. I do a better job in courses when I can ask questions.”

But he also said he understands the situation. “I am worried with all the students coming back to UMaine,” Ransley said. “I do worry about the health of some of my friends now and again and I also worry about some of the professors.”

Jacob Tauke, a junior and Marine Corps veteran, said he and other students who prefer in-person instruction, including many veterans, are disappointed with their fall schedules. Tauke is studying political science and anthropology and said two of five classes he is signed up for are being taught online.

“I feel like the current mood is ‘Why would I want to sit at my computer and pay the university X amount of money when I could have gone to an online school to begin with,’ ” Tauke said. “I think a lot of people who appreciate a hands-on approach will probably find something else to do for a year or two until this is all over.”

Jasmine Olivares, a senior studying social work, said most of the classes in her major are small and her program coordinators told her she could choose whether to take her course load online or not. She said two of her classes are being offered online at the choice of the instructors; for the others she will have a choice.

“I just see it as kind of ridiculous in a way to expect to charge each student the same amount, even if they’re all taking online courses because at that point, if we’re all taking online courses to get a degree, it’s not a degree that’s worth as much as if you had gone to the actual course,” Olivares said.

Some students say they understand the situation and are happy to be back on campus regardless of what classes look like, and that the university is doing the best it can while trying to preserve the health and safety of the campus.

“Honestly I was expecting we wouldn’t be going back this fall so I’m pretty happy period,” said Emmeline Willey, a senior who said she is waiting to see what modality classes will be offered in before finalizing her schedule.

She said many students struggled to learn online and that if the university were to announce a complete transition to remote learning for the fall she would have planned to take a semester off.

“Everyone in my circle is just overall thrilled we’re coming back at all and that we get to see our friends and hang out even if we’re not in classes,” Wiley said. “Obviously it’s not ideal to go online and have the dining halls shut for takeout and what not but it’s better than nothing.”

Ashley Cray, an incoming freshman, said the prospect of remote classes is disappointing, but she also said she wouldn’t want to attend a lecture with a large number of students right now.

And while many parts of the college experience, including moving into dorms and the ability to go home during the semester, won’t be the same, Cray said she is happy to be going to campus.

“I’m mostly excited that we even get to go,” she said. “For a while there I just didn’t know if that was going to happen.”

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:40 p.m. on July 13, 2020, to correct the proportion of UMaine’s faculty represented in a survey. 

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