LEWISTON — With the first students slated to begin arriving on campus Sunday, Bates College is gearing up to monitor closely whether they bring the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 with them.

The college this month tested at least 574 of its employees and determined, to its relief, that none of them showed signs of COVID-19, according to a new online dashboard unveiled Friday.

What isn’t clear is whether any of the school’s 1,800 students who come to Lewiston in the days ahead will bring the virus with them from hometowns across the country that may have far higher exposure rates.

Dashboard showing COVID-19 test results at Bates College as of Friday afternoon.

Nearly all of the students will be housed in Bates’ dorms, but some are slated to live in area hotels. All have been warned to expect a toned-down social life.

Bates is counting on a strict regimen of tests, masks and social distancing to prevent an outbreak that could force it to send students home again as it did in March when the pandemic first began clobbering the country.

Other colleges that have already brought students back have had mixed results, with some switching to remote-only classes when they found they could not control its spread. Others have had better luck.

Bates’ vice president for campus life, Josh McIntosh, told students Friday that poor behavior by young people returning to the University of North Carolina and other schools had forced them to reverse course and drop in-person learning this fall.

The college’s oldest dorm, Parker Hall, has housed students since the 1850s. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

At Bates, he said, the goal has been “to find a way to support you in continuing with your residential college experience, if you wish to, while also keeping you healthy.”

“However, I am mindful that there is only so much we can do,” McIntosh told students.

Some factors, particularly if the pandemic picks up steam in the community or in Maine generally, are beyond the college’s capacity to influence, he said.

“But what happens on campus is our responsibility,” McIntosh said. “Your decisions — whether you live on or off campus — will have a huge impact on whether we are forced to close campus and go to remote learning or instead are able to be successful in continuing the on-campus student experience.”

Bates has put in place a protocol for arriving students that aims to minimize the chance that someone with COVID-19 interacts with so many people that controlling an outbreak would become difficult.

The first students are slated to return Sunday, but the bulk of the campus won’t return until Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday at scheduled times. Students are expected to report directly to Underhill Arena for testing and then proceed straight to their assigned housing. They’re supposed to stay there for up to 48 hours until their initial test results come back.

Students have been urged to pack light and to get a test before they come if they can. If they’re ill, they’re told to stay home.

While they wait for test results, students are only allowed to leave their dorm room to retrieve grab-and-go meals and use the bathroom, always with face coverings and social distancing.

Bates said it knows students will be tempted “to gather together and see friends in-person during this quarantine” but it warns them to refrain.

Anyone who tests positive would be isolated further, the college plan indicates. The college’s dashboard indicates it has 113 rooms reserved for isolation.

Those in isolation “must not have in-person contacts with others on campus or with members of the community” or leave campus, the college said.

Everyone on campus will be tested twice a week to make sure they remain COVID-free.

Bates said this month that it plans to remain open until Thanksgiving when students will depart until the spring semester begins Jan. 13, unless the health care system is overwhelmed or if there is “an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus.”

The college did not specifically say what would constitute an outbreak, but it defines one as “three or more epidemiologically linked cases of a specific disease” that are “linked to a common source such as a building, classroom, facility, or event.”

The one thing the college is sure about is that as circumstances change so will its approach.

“As we consider the days and weeks ahead, I know we will continue to face uncertainty and complexity,” McIntosh said.

“Faculty and staff at the college have developed plan after plan, contingency after contingency, and I know that we probably have not gotten everything right,” he said. “As students arrive on campus, we will certainly have to reconsider some decisions that we thought at the time were the right decisions, but may end up not being the right decisions.”

“This will require us to be flexible, nimble, and adaptable — all good traits for people and for organizations, and traits that will serve you well in the future,” McIntosh said.

“Under these circumstances, it will be important that we do our very best to approach each other with patience, grace, and kindness, and not move too quickly to criticism, frustration and agitation,” he said.

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