WATERVILLE — Colby College students will start moving onto campus and in downtown buildings as soon as Friday, but in a much different way than they have in the past.

The 2,060 students coming to Waterville this year will already have been tested for COVID-19 before they arrive, they will again be tested in a parking lot as soon as they hit campus and then must quarantine in a dormitory until test results are returned within 24 hours. They — along with returning faculty and staff at Colby — will also be tested twice more that first week, three times the second week and two times every ensuing week.

The protocol is a significant departure from the traditional campus welcome, where students meet and greet, take part in group celebratory activities and go on wilderness trips. Each student may arrive on campus with only two people who may not enter dormitories.

Colby College President David Greene, seen speaking Oct. 15, 2019, says the college’s $10 million plan to bring students back to campus this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic has also shown him the importance of “the community aspect, our connection to Waterville.” Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

Colby officials this past week detailed their comprehensive $10 million health plan in an interview, saying the aim is protect not only the Colby community but also the wider city and region as the private college reopens for the fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we’re testing two times a week, the idea is we can catch people who might be infected before they are contagious,” Colby President David Greene said in the interview Thursday, also attended by Doug Terp, Colby’s vice president of administration and now the college’s overseer of health and safety matters. “That’s really the critical component for us: constant testing.”

Of the 2,060 students arriving in Waterville, 100 will live in the college’s new Lockwood Hotel and 200 will live at the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons downtown, according to Greene and Terp. Also, 124 students plan to study remotely and 20 have been authorized to live off campus because of a medical need to do so, they said.

Colby has invested $10 million in its college opening plan, which includes not only consistent and rigorous testing of all students, faculty and staff, but also a requirement that they wear face coverings, practice social distancing and isolate or quarantine when necessary. The college is working with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Broad Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, MaineGeneral Health and the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, saying the reopening plan is guided by the best science available right now.

Greene said that, as of Thursday, faculty and staff already had undergone more than 500 tests. That includes Greene himself, who tested negative Wednesday.

“So far, all have been negative at this time, which is great,” he said.

Colby is starting the semester Aug. 26, two weeks earlier than usual, and the semester will end just before Thanksgiving, after which students will do take-home exams. They will be required to stay on campus during the traditional October break, and will be tested at outdoor tents before being allowed on campus.

Greene said the plan to help protect health and safety has multiple components, including surveillance testing, contract tracing, quarantine and isolation when needed, medical and mental health support, and use of a daily self-assessment app. Students must sign an agreement saying they will follow protocol.

Faculty, students and staff will receive health education and online training for how to self-swab as part of a more minimally invasive, lower-nasal, test that Terp says has a high accuracy rate. Results of this PCR nasal swab are available within 24 hours, sometimes even in 12 hours or less.

Colby has hired people to do contract tracing, as well as a person to support students who must be placed in isolation or quarantine, so as to not burden the state.

Greene and other Colby officials met with the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, including CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, to review Colby’s plans and answer questions. “They were very supportive of this,” Greene said.

Under Colby’s plan, adjustments will be made for academics, co-curricular programs, housing and dining, all with the idea of having to create a “bubble” for the college campus that is undergoing the regular testing protocols.

Workers lift double doors that were being installed Friday at the new coronavirus testing center at Colby College in Waterville. Miller Library is in the background. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Colby’s campus, meanwhile, will be largely closed to the public, a fact that is tough for college officials who have previously encouraged the community to visit its facilities and events. “This is not a gated campus like others around the country,” Greene said. “But this year, we can’t do that. At least not this fall. We’re not allowing people to come on campus in the way we normally do.”

The campus museum, library, athletic center and outdoor fields will be closed to the public, but open to those on campus. Walking trails along the campus perimeter, however, will be open to the public as long as people wear face coverings.

Travel will be restricted, there will be limited campus access for outsiders and people who typically travel to campus to speak will do so remotely.

Students, faculty and staff may also not travel outside of Maine without permission, as part of restrictions. Students who take part in civic engagement with the Waterville community will not be able to do that in-person, but the college is exploring ways to do so remotely.

An example might be tutoring children in the community remotely as a way of helping local public schools, Greene said.

REMOTE OPTIONS

Some Colby employees not planning to be on campus will work or teach remotely; those who are not in the testing program may not enter campus.

Terp said about 70% of courses will be taught in person, about 30% remotely, and some students who are on campus will take courses remotely. Hybrid learning also will be used, where students, for instance, might attend a class in person for one or more days, hear a lecture online on another day, and take part in an online discussion.

“It’s not just one thing we’re doing that matters,” Greene said. “It’s multiple components that all work together. In the end, we’ll do whatever it takes to get it right.”

Framing and other materials are staged outside Miller Library on Friday at Colby College in Waterville. Structures are for teaching and student programs. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

But Martyna Czarnik, who graduates in 2021 and studies biology with a concentration in neuroscience and minor in philosophy, said she is nervous about returning to school and feels as if the college isn’t being as flexible as it could be.

“I truly hope that all the measures taken by Colby will ensure the safety of all students and staff,” said Czarnik, who is also co-editor-in-chief of the Colby Echo student newspaper. “With that being said, I personally have had mixed emotions with the return-to-campus plan. I would have felt much safer studying remotely; however, Colby does not allow for students to take all in-person classes remotely. At this point in time, it feels as if Colby is forcing students to sacrifice their safety for their education.”

Asked to respond to that concern, Colby released a statement that “all students were provided the opportunity to study on campus, to take courses remotely, or to take a leave with automatic re-enrollment at the semester of their choosing.” The college said 30% of its classes will be taught in a remote format.

“Our primary model of education is in-person learning and instruction, and the comprehensive safety plan we have developed is allowing us to continue to provide the very best education to our students,” the statement said.

Sandy Maisel, the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government at Colby, said he and most of his colleagues think the protocol that the college has set up “is as thorough as it can be” during trying times.

“That does not mean it is without risks, but rather that the risks are managed. And, it is very important, that the college has permitted any faculty who feel that the risk is too much for them — for whatever reason — to teach remotely,” Maisel said. “Similarly, students who cannot return to campus — again for whatever reason — can continue their education remotely. Frankly, I think our policies and protocols are the best of any college’s I have seen.”

A FOUR-STAGE SYSTEM

Like some other colleges, Colby is following a four-stage system in helping to ensure the health and safety of the community.

A green level means activities will proceed as listed above, with students and faculty attending classes, wearing face coverings, social distancing, eating in the dining hall and taking part in activities and small social events.

New patio furniture is ready for students to use Friday in gathering areas outside a residence hall at Colby College in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

If Colby starts to see cases of COVID-19, restrictions will be put in place. The yellow stage means there are a limited number of cases. Orange, that there is a modest outbreak of three to 10 cases. Red signifies a significant outbreak, when all activities must be conducted remotely. Restrictions will remain in place until there are no cases.

“If we have no cases but zero compliance, we would ratchet up the level,” Terp said. “We wouldn’t rely on just one factor.”

Students, faculty and staff will know what level the college is at, every day. Those on campus will get a detailed report, and the greater Waterville community will be apprised of the status on Colby’s website, Terp said.

Students will be allowed to leave campus for shopping and other activities, according to Terp, but the college will stipulate that they must stay in state. They will be notified when, for instance, they must stay in Kennebec County, the city, or on campus.

Terp and Greene say it is unrealistic to expect there won’t be COVID cases at some point, but they cannot predict how many so they are planning for all possibilities. Colby, they said, is trying to take as many protective measures as possible.

“I think you have to plan for it and minimize it,” Terp said.

If the college sees a significant number of COVID cases, it would work closely with the CDC. “You don’t want to send a lot of people, if they’re sick, home,” Terp said, though he noted that it would ultimately be a CDC decision.

Both Terp and Greene touched on the economic impact of the college on the Waterville economy, saying that with those on campus not allowed to travel, they likely would spend money locally. Also, Colby is in the process of hiring 10 to 20 full and part-time staff to conduct COVID testing, with the pay for those positions starting at $15 an hour.

THINKING OF OTHERS

Terp said Colby officials looked at plans for hundreds of schools and has weekly calls with Bowdoin, Bates, Hamilton and Dartmouth colleges to discuss testing protocol, isolation other matters.

In response to a question about whether the COVID situation has made him think about what Colby should be, heading toward the future, Greene said that what it has done for him “more than anything, is to think about things that are important to us and live those out front more than we probably have.”

Greene saw that spirit back in March, when the college joined with others in announcing students had to leave campus for remote learning as the scope of the pandemic came into focus, as everyone realized that hard choices were necessary in their “obligation to others and the common good.”

“The community aspect, our connection to Waterville, becomes more important to me in all of this,” he said. “The way we take care of us, whether it’s on campus or off campus, is more important to us.”

There is a “mean-spirited tone in the world right now,” he said, adding that he hopes one of the things people take away from this is to be “a place that really thinks about others and thinks about that first.”

Framing is moved into place Friday before structures are built to hold teaching and students programs outside the Miller Library, right, at Colby College in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Terp said the college is financing its $10 million testing and reopening effort through its operating budget, savings in travel, and capital deferments and reserves. The college would also tap into its unrestricted endowment funds as well if needed, he said.

In these “incredibly challenging times,” there are no options that are without risk, according to Greene, though he said Colby is attempting to “adopt the best practices” advised by science and their partner institutions.

“There’s no ‘right answer,’ has been my experience through all of this,” Greene said. “It’s just trying to use the best judgment we can and not cut corners. Ours, really, is the comprehensive protocol approach to having everyone on campus, and that’s unusual, for sure.”

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