St. Joseph’s College Director of Health and Wellness Sheri Piers administers a COVID-19 test to sophomore Adam Martin last week. Martin, who has been tested 10 times in this semester, said, “A lot of people are dreading going home, but a lot of people are uncertain and are like, ‘Maybe home is the best place for me right now.'” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

With cases of coronavirus rising in Maine and nationally, colleges and universities around the state are preparing to send students home at the Thanksgiving break and have them finish the semester remotely.

Schools are distributing masks, administering departure testing for the virus and making plans to support small numbers of students who might need to remain on campus. In most cases, colleges have been planning all along to have students finish the semester off campus, though some schools have had to make adjustments. Saint Joseph’s College in Standish moved up its departure dates after an outbreak of 12 cases.

“Overall we think we did a really great job this semester,” Saint Joseph’s President Jim Dlugos said. “We’re happy we were able to do exit testing of students as they’re leaving to make sure there’s a level of confidence as they return home for Thanksgiving. I think this is a case where if people work together it can work. We hope whatever students have learned on campus will extend for the next eight or 10 weeks and they can come back healthy and safe in the spring.”

Maine colleges and universities have seen low instances of coronavirus on campus, especially when compared to schools nationally. Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 321,000 cases and 80 deaths at colleges and universities, according to a New York Times survey tracking the virus on campuses.

In the University of Maine System, there were 84 known cases as of Monday out of more than 30,000 students, faculty and staff. Most cases appear to have been isolated, though the system did report a cluster of 10 cases among employees in facilities management in Orono this month.

“It’s really been an extraordinary effort I think when everything is said and done,” said University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy. “We’ve probably done better than anyone in the country with numbers as low as they are and screening taking place on a regular basis.”

The UMaine System had completed 6,180 “safe departure” tests by Monday, including testing for all out-of-state and residential students living in campus housing. With 5,285 results in hand, the system had identified 31 positive asymptomatic cases among students.

“The University of Maine System will be supporting students who are unable to travel home for Thanksgiving due to an isolation order in the space set aside on the campuses,” the system said in a statement. “Meals and a great deal of care and comfort will be provided until it is safe for students to return to their families.”

Ray Rice, president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, said the university has four students who tested positive and nine students total who will be in isolation on campus over the holiday. He said the university has been preparing food and care packages for the students to last them through the next two weeks, but it will be a hard time for them to be away from their families. The students will have access to counseling while they are in isolation.

From left, Jenna Chase, Sheri Piers and Susan McNeil wear full PPE while testing students for COVID-19 at St. Joseph’s College last week. Students living on campus were to be tested before returning home for the rest of the semester. The heath and wellness team administered 130 tests on Nov. 18 and had 88 more scheduled for Nov. 19. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“That’s four families and four communities that would have been completely unaware their kids were coming back asymptomatic positive if we didn’t do those tests, so I think it’s incredibly important we did,” Rice said.

Students on the system’s seven campuses will complete their classes and final exams remotely and return Jan. 25, a week later than originally planned. There also won’t be a spring break on UMaine campuses next year. “It’s hard to eliminate spring break,” Malloy said. “It’s a cultural thing, but frankly, it’s too dangerous.”

Private colleges and universities around the state also are administering departure tests to students as they wrap up the semester. At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where only first-year students and select groups of upperclassmen have been on campus this fall, students have been asked to schedule a test within 72 hours of when they plan to leave campus. The last day students can be in residence halls was last Saturday and every student will leave campus with a K95 mask to wear while traveling.

Sophomore, juniors and seniors will be on campus in the spring while freshmen will be remote. The college also has pushed back its spring start date to the first week of February and consolidated spring break to a four-day weekend with instructions that students not leave Maine during the break.

Matthew Orlando, senior vice president for finance and administration at Bowdoin, said the college anticipated that the winter months could bring a surge in cases and has been preparing since the summer for the Nov. 21 move-out of fall semester students.

“If it continues to be a pretty scary world out there into February we’ll reassess, but if there are measures taken by the governor, and folks abide by masking rules and cases start to fall, we’ve learned a lot this semester about how to do things,” he said. “We’ve learned students can social distance and how to set up classrooms appropriately. We sort of tested all the systems with a smaller group of first-years this semester, and we are really well-positioned I think to add numbers in the spring.”

St. Joseph’s College senior Renee Leask poses near the dorm she lives in on the campus in Standish. Leask said she has seen some of the difficulties with getting students to comply with mask wearing at all times. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At Saint Joseph’s, a private, Catholic liberal arts school, students will study remotely through finals in mid-December, with plans to come back a week later than originally planned. Their spring break also is canceled. “As of the moment, we expect our students to come back in the second half of January, and we’ll use the same protocols we used in the fall,” Dlugos said. That means all students will have to produce a negative test in order to return to campus and physical distancing, masking and sanitizing will continue.

Adam Martin, a sophomore from St. Albans, Vermont, is going home for Thanksgiving but is among a small number of students who will return to finish the semester due to his job in campus security. “I know there’s a lot of split on campus,” said Martin, 20. “A lot of people are dreading going home, but a lot of people are uncertain and are like, ‘Maybe home is the best place for me right now.'”

Martin plans to depart for Vermont after getting test results, which normally take about 24 hours. Throughout the semester he has been tested 10 times. “I think right now rather than keeping people here in the uncertainty, it’s best if people are in the comfort of their own homes,” Martin said.

Renee Leask, 21, a senior, said the departure is disappointing for students in their last year on campus, but it’s probably the safest option. She also said she’s grateful for the opportunity to get tested before going home to her parents, who are in their 60s. She is hopeful, but uncertain, about what the spring will bring. “I don’t know how the world will look,” Leask said. “The college, I think we will have stricter policies in the spring, but I don’t know how the world will look.”

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