Nathan Henry, a second-year student at the University of Southern Maine, receives a nasal swab during COVID-19 testing on the Gorham campus Wednesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Classes at most Maine colleges and universities are just getting started, yet already a handful of cases of the coronavirus have forced students and staff on at least seven campuses into quarantine and isolation.

Eight students at the University of Maine in Orono were disciplined last week for failing to adhere to physical distancing requirements at off-campus parties. At Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, a petition earlier this month called on administrators to implement a more rigorous testing program.

And in Brunswick, Bowdoin College officials are explaining to the broader community what their plans are for students who are living off-campus despite the college’s plans to have only freshmen and select groups back in-person.

These are the kinds of challenges colleges and universities in Maine are seeking to address as they tackle the unprecedented task of bringing students back to campus amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Whether it’s executing testing regimens, enforcing social distancing requirements or monitoring off-campus parties, schools are bracing for a difficult year and the possibility they could have to change course suddenly if there’s an outbreak of the virus.

Already more than 26,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to colleges and universities around the country since the pandemic began, according to a New York Times database. Outbreaks have forced schools like the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to backtrack on reopening plans or move to online learning.

At the University of Alabama, more than 560 cases of the virus were reported in the first week of classes, prompting the shutdown of bars in the college town of Tuscaloosa and raising broader health concerns about the spread of the virus outside of campus.

Concerns about colleges as the next virus hot spots are already coming to fruition and haven’t gone unnoticed in Maine, where college leaders, students and parents said they’re hopeful about Maine’s low virus numbers but still bracing for the unpredictable. So far, more than 15 cases have been reported among campuses including the UMaine System, Colby College and the University of New England’s Portland campus.

University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy talks to reporters Wednesday outside the Costello Sports Complex on University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“If this is going to work anywhere it’s going to work in Maine and that’s not because of our students as much as it is the hard work that’s been done the last six months in this state,” said University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy during a visit to the University of Southern Maine last week. “We have one of the lowest rates. We have such a low rate that when we see four cases someplace, that’s a big story.”

There’s no one specific metric or variable for determining what might prompt the system, which enrolls about 27,000 students statewide, to change course from its plans to bring students back to campus, but Malloy said flexibility will be key this fall.

“This is a process,” he said. “We can tell you what step we’re in but we have to always be willing to change depending on what the outcomes are. Ultimately we want to keep people safe, deliver education in the ways they want it and protect our faculty and staff as well as our students. We’re really charting a course that gives us the best chance of doing that but there are no guarantees and we may have to change.”

Colleges, including the state system, are investing millions of dollars in rigorous testing programs they hope will assuage the fears of students, parents and staff and ensure a safe environment for in-person learning.

At Bates College in Lewiston, all students who will be on campus this fall will be tested upon arrival, again three days later and then twice weekly throughout the semester. Faculty and staff who interact closely with students are being asked to test twice per week.

President Clayton Spencer said Thursday that move-in was off to a smooth start. The college reported its first case of the virus in a student Friday, something Spencer said is to be expected with students returning to campus from all over the country.

“Certainly there are certain people who don’t think any colleges should be opening,” Spencer said. “We felt with the testing program we have that we can do it safely and if it turns out we end up in a situation where we’ve got too many cases, we will know that early and be able to respond, including changing course if we have to.”

At Colby College in Waterville, President David Greene said the college is using an app called CoVerified that will facilitate the scheduling of testing for students, who right now are required to test three times per week.

Greene said, however, the college hasn’t been able to deploy the app yet because of delays in development, and there have been some challenges in getting students to comply with the testing mandate.

He said the message this fall will be that all students must show up for testing appointments. “We expect like anything people might make mistakes,” Greene said. “They’re focused on other things. If it’s something that happens once, it’s really a conversation about why this is important. If it happens consistently, you can’t be in this community. You have to leave. This is not a negotiable item for us.”

At Saint Joseph’s College, a private liberal arts school in Standish, administrators are working to persuade anxious faculty and students that even though the school will not conduct universal testing for COVID-19, they are confident everyone on campus will be safe. Administrators earlier this month received a petition signed by hundreds of students and faculty members concerned about a lack of widespread asymptomatic testing.

Oliver Griswold, chief brand and marketing officer at the school, said there is no question there are heightened anxieties about coming back to school and questions about testing have been the most common.

“We’ve been focused a lot on infection management. Wearing masks, washing hands, keeping distance. That behavioral stuff is the central focus of our plan,” Griswold said. “There is a worry that a lot of people are focused on testing as an inoculation and it isn’t.”

Griswold said Saint Joseph’s has plenty of testing capacity – five stations set up around campus that will provide results in 15 minutes. The college also will be conducting regular tests of wastewater, which can provide an early indication of whether the virus is spreading, and required negative tests from students returning from outside Maine’s exempted states. He said administrators were happy to hear concerns from engaged students.

”There is not any sort of blame or resentment over getting questions like this,” he said. “This is an ongoing conversation and frankly it’s a conversation we’re used to having.”

President Jim Dlugos pointed out that many colleges – Notre Dame, for instance – conducted widespread testing of students but still couldn’t avoid outbreaks.

“The behavioral piece wasn’t there,” he said. “We understand testing is on everyone’s minds, but it’s not a silver bullet. It has to be part of a much larger systems approach.”

At the University of Maine in Orono, one student was suspended and seven others disciplined last week for not following social distancing rules at gatherings. The disciplinary actions were not connected to any of the positive cases the university has seen, according to a spokesman, Dan Demeritt. He stressed that while the state has a group-size limit on indoor gatherings of 50 people, the number of students who can gather in a setting is likely to be much less given the need to physically distance.

Guidance on parties and gatherings issued by the system last week says students must also adhere to the rules around six feet of physical distancing indoors and no more then five people per 1,000 square feet outdoors. Failure to do so can result in discipline, including suspension or dismissal.

During his visit to USM, Malloy said he has directly communicated the rules to students and advised them they will be held accountable for violations. He said students are also being asked to sign agreements like the Black Bear Pact in Orono and the Healthy Huskies Initiative at USM.

“It’s an agreement we’re asking people to buy in to and sign on to that says they’re going to live by those rules,” Malloy said. “They are going to safely distance and not be the party animal that maybe their older brother was. We’re in a different time. This isn’t going to last forever.”

But some students said they are skeptical about how closely their peers will follow the guidelines. Gabrielle Thompson, a resident assistant and senior at the University of Southern Maine, said on the second day of move-in last week that some students had already not adhered to quarantine and left campus. She said residential life staff are focused on making sure everyone is safe and if students are caught leaving, they have been spoken to and made aware of the rules and consequences.

“I think as test results come back there might be a bit of a fluctuation or a change in attitudes, where people might feel like they’re a little invincible now and they can go out and party and do what they want, but we have a lot of plans in place for if that does happen, what we can do,” Thompson said.

“It’s definitely going to be really hard for people because we’ve been cooped up for such a long time and now we’re going back to college surrounded by all our friends,” said Meghan Galante, a sophomore at USM. “I think it will be hard, but I think most people will follow the rules because they don’t want to be sent home.”

Her mother, Katelyn Galante, said she feels comfortable sending her daughter back and is happy she will have an opportunity to do at least some in-person learning. “I’m not really worried and I’m glad she’ll be around her friends again,” said Katelyn Galante. “That has been the difficult part, not being around the people she’s close with.”

At the University of New England, President James Herbert said social media campaigns, education through resident assistants and video messaging are being used to communicate the rules to students. No students had been disciplined as of Thursday afternoon for violating rules related to COVID-19, but Herbert said he would be surprised if things stay that way. “There’s no excuse for anyone not following the rules, because we’ve had a robust education campaign,” he said.

Bowdoin administrators issued a message to off-campus students Aug. 18 saying that while they will be able to access virtual resources and events, on-campus facilities are off limits. The message also said the college has heard from neighbors and faculty members concerned about a large number of students living off campus in the Brunswick area.

Large parties or gatherings are prohibited and on-campus students have been informed they are not allowed to attend off-campus parties.

Brittney McKinley, a senior who is returning to campus, said while she has confidence in Bowdoin’s plans, it remains to be seen how closely students will follow guidelines.

“I think the hardest thing to enforce will be not the majority of people on campus – the first years – I think there’s a good chance they will pretty easily listen to most of the regulations put in place by the social code,” McKinley said. “I think the hardest part for the college to regulate will be the upperclassmen who have friends who are living off campus but really close by.”

About 200 Bowdoin students will be living off-campus this fall, according to President Clayton Rose, who said that number is slightly larger than normal. The college has about 1,800 students.

Rose said the college is offering off-campus students access to testing and he is optimistic they will conduct themselves in an appropriate and safe way.

“We have communicated consistently over the summer with all our students about the need to not gather in large numbers and wear masks,” Rose said. “That includes students who are off-campus. I am optimistic our students, who care deeply about the community, will abide by those rules and if they don’t we’ll deal with that in the normal way we think about violation of our rules.”


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