Socially distanced MECA students critique artwork by Jon Stahly, a master’s student, on Friday. Photo by Christopher Stiegler, Program Chair of the Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art

While most colleges in Maine weigh whether and how to bring students back this fall, the Maine College of Art is already holding classes at its campus in downtown Portland.

More than two dozen graduate students arrived in early July in the first stage of a phased reopening plan that will bring all of MECA’s 500 or so students back on campus in early September.

Monday marked the start of the third week of the eight-week summer intensive for MFA students. They will be joined the week of Aug. 2 by students seeking a master of arts in teaching, on Aug. 24 by incoming freshmen and on Sept. 1 by returning undergraduates. The MFA fall semester and the Salt graduate program begin Sept. 8.

In-person learning in the early part of the summer is limited to students pursuing their master’s degrees, a small cohort of 26 students, eight of whom live in MECA residence halls. This fall, classes will take place both in-person and online, said MECA President Laura Freid. When she addressed the MFA students in early July, Freid told them they were educational pioneers. “I felt very fortunate for them to be one of the few groups during this pandemic to have a community around them, a community of like-minded makers and thinkers,” Freid said.

Across Maine, reopening plans vary from campus to campus. This month, the University of New England and Maine Maritime Academy both announced they will open in the fall with students on campus, joining the University of Maine system, while Southern Maine Community College will offer a mix of in-person and online classes. Bates College will reopen to students, but at Bowdoin College only freshman, for the most part, will be on campus. The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, with a student body similar in size to that of MECA, will offer a mix of on-campus and online learning.

MECA’s reopening plan is rooted in its 200,000-square-foot downtown building, which allows room to bring people together while also giving them space. MECA invested in a new air-ventilation system this past winter, just before the pandemic hit, giving administrators greater confidence in their plans, Freid said. “It gives us the opportunity to let students have the space they need to physically distance and still have the community they need to feel a part of the campus,” she said. “The first thing on my mind is the health and safety of our community. We have had a committee of people working all spring and summer, along with members of the medical community, to make sure we have a healthy and safe campus. We will be taking every precaution should things change. We can shift to all online if we need to.”

Lauren Keim is among two dozen or so MFA students who are back in session at the Maine College of Art. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Among the safety measures MECA has implemented are mandatory temperature checks before entering the building and the use of face masks in the building, except when students are working alone in their enclosed studios. Even then, they are asked to mask up 30 minutes before they will come in contact with others. All students were required to pass a COVID-19 test before beginning summer classes, and out-of-state students were required to meet Maine’s 14-day quarantine guidelines.

The cafe is open for gathering, but there’s no food service, and the building is closed to outside visitors.

So far it’s going well, said Lauren Keim, who is pursuing her master’s in photography. “It’s very nice to have the school open and available and to be with people again,” said Keim, 50, who moved to Portland from Virginia late last year and has been isolating alone since the pandemic began. “I do feel safe. I have not been personally very paranoid about the virus, partly because I have been on my own so much and had so little contact with people. But everybody is doing a good job and paying attention to details.”

She is less certain about how she will feel in late August, when as many as 500 undergraduates begin arriving. That prospect makes her nervous, she said. “I will feel more apprehensive then. That is a lot of people. I will just kind of see what comes of it when the time comes, but I feel very safe right now,” she said.

Caitlyn D’Amico, a 23-year-old MFA painting major from Watertown, Massachusetts, said she feels “safe and heard. They’ve done a good job making us feel comfortable. They were able to keep the group small enough, and the people who are allowed in the building is really limited.”

Freid said MECA’s in-person and online classroom strategies provide flexibility while preserving the campus experience. The approach creates less density during the summer and early part of the fall when freshmen will move into residence halls, and also gives priority to studio-related work that thrives on interaction and engagement. Art schools face a unique challenge because of the hands-on nature of the creative process. Art-making can be a solitary experience, but teaching art is tactile and process-oriented, and best accomplished among small settings of people, she said.

Freid is part of a network of about 40 art-and-design school administrators around the country who communicate regularly about their plans. She said most are moving forward with a hybrid approach that includes in-person studio instruction. “All of us have learned there are many courses you can deliver online that are excellent – art history and others. But for studio courses, most are planning to do them in person,” she said.

One of the biggest changes involves the student critique, where students display their work for group evaluation. It’s an emotional and charged moment that will feel very different with smaller groups and, perhaps, with less animated conversation, said Chris Stiegler, who chairs the MFA program at MECA. “Historically, we’re on top of one another in a small space talking intimately about the work. Now, we are designating the largest room on campus for these conversations, and those conversations will happen with social distancing and masks,” he said.

MECA usually enrolls about 40 MFA students in the summer intensive. Having a smaller group take the course, which Stiegler assumes is related to the pandemic, makes it easier to manage safely.

Stiegler was anxious that first Monday back. Part of that was first-day jitters, but anxieties about the pandemic hovered over everything. When he addressed the group en masse, he told a “quippy” joke to break the ice. “I was nervous about going back to work, but once in the situation, it begins to feel good because it begins to feel not like normal, but like a new sense of community,” he said.

No one has resisted the mask mandate, and everyone has cooperated with the rules, which have evolved based on feedback and concerns, he said. He thinks that’s because everyone feels a shared sense of uncertainty and trepidation, as well as determination to make smart decisions and provide a model for other art schools about how to open and operate safely. “We are situated to be a leader here,” Stiegler said.

He understands concerns about the fall, when many more students will be on campus, but thinks the school is ready to meet the challenge. “I imagine we will have to make minor adjustments to where we are physically as a graduate department, to make sure we give those students the space they need. But what these past weeks have shown me is that this school is resourceful and invested in making those adjustments,” he said. “I am prepared for doing the work and everyone else feels prepared to do that work, and that work will continue and evolve from the fall into the spring. The one reality is, this is a shifting target and we all know that.”

D’Amico said the best part of being back in school is feeling safe among other people. After months of isolation, human interaction feels both affirming and uplifting, she said. “It’s been amazing being around people after not being around people. Regardless of the outside situation and even though we face hard restrictions inside, it has been really nice to be around people and feel a human connection again,” she said.

This story was updated at 8:22 a.m. July 22 to reflect that Southern Maine Community College will hold some classes in person.

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