Steele Young, a second-year student at Thomas College in Waterville, Thursday in the hallway of the Alfond Academic Center on campus. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Steele Young read the articles last spring about the coronavirus taking hold across the world. A first-year student at the time, the Freeport native never thought it would impact the community of Thomas College.

“We almost felt untouchable being in Maine, kind of safe where we were,” said Young, who studies entrepreneurship and small business management at the Waterville college. “I went home that weekend to go play basketball and we got an email that said, ‘Come back and pack up.'”

That scenario played out across Maine and the nation as coronavirus cases surged, prompting hasty decisions for businesses and schools to shut down in-person interactions. The first coronavirus fatality in Maine was March 27, 2020, as positive cases in the state over the previous two weeks went from zero to 168.

Thomas suspended in-person instruction beginning Sunday, March 15, 2020, and closed the campus days later. Two weeks after that, the college embarked on finishing the semester entirely remotely.

Thomas College President Laurie Lachance initially felt the same way as Young, that central Maine would be OK. Lachance remembers calling the college staff on that March Sunday with intentions of making a 1 p.m. closing announcement.

“How we evolved from thinking, ‘Oh, we really don’t need to send the kids home,’ to, ‘Oh yes we do’… what a journey,” Lachance said. “It’s been a remarkable year. It’s tested every single person on this campus.”

If Young was asked a year ago if he’d be back at Thomas, he’d probably have said no. As time went on, it was clear they would come back. “I knew Thomas was going to take the right precaution to be safe, but I didn’t know how the world would be,” Young said.

While the pandemic has tested central Maine colleges to adapt and carry on learning over the last year — ranging from fully remote, to hybrid and full-time in-person instruction — officials are also reporting steady or an increased number of graduates, as well as changing student demographics.

UNITY COLLEGE 

There are no students on campus at Unity College this year, but that hasn’t stopped “America’s Environmental College” from growing.

The college’s expanded virtual and hybrid offerings under its “The Path Forward” plan, announced last summer, spurned a major enrollment increase and an increasingly diverse student body. The controversial plan involves “hybrid learning without a centralized campus,” a process that officials said was already in the works but accelerated by the pandemic.

Year over year, Unity’s undergraduate enrollment is up from 1,120 in 2019-20, to 1,831 in 2020-21.

Melik Khoury, president of Unity College. Submitted photo

“With the creation of the enterprise model that says, for those who are looking for the traditional model, we’ve got the hybrid model at 90 Quaker Hill Road, for those who are place bound we’ve got the distance ed and all these specific educational units, we are able to attract a broader range of students who might not all want the same experience,” Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said. “It’s making this accessible to a wider group of folks who might not be able to put their lives on hold and go to a residential campus.”

Last March 15, Khoury announced Unity would be going remote, with classes starting March 30. Students were asked to leave campus by March 18. They have yet to return, but college officials said there will be in-person options this fall.

After announcing the school would be fully remote in June, the college also changed the academic calendar from a traditional semester schedule to a year with eight, five-week terms. Unity’s undergraduate enrollment has grown in each of the five terms since switching to the schedule by approximately 300 undergraduate students and 100 graduate students.

There is also a changing student demographic. The average student age in 2011-12 was 19. Today, the average Unity student is 27 years old.

Unity used to focus on graduating high school seniors, but the college’s target population expanded under the new plan.

“It’s not magic,” Khoury said. “It’s providing a different way for people to access this type of education.”

The college focused on hiring a more diverse staff and added more professional financial advisors to the staff to help guide students through financial aid processes. Students are required to take 24 credits a year to maintain financial aid eligibility. Approximately 95% of Unity students qualify for federal and state aid.

Unity also introduced a new “stop-out” opportunity, which allows students to take off up to three terms before being considered withdrawn. Students can accelerate their degree by taking classes year-round, or can tend to outside life issues and take time off.

“It really provides maximum flexibility for students, whether they want to accelerate, decelerate or if they have life changing events throughout their academic career,” Khoury said.

COLBY COLLEGE

As the year has gone on, Abby Recko has thought about what senior year might look like.

A junior at Colby College studying biology and religious studies, Recko’s two middle years of her college experience have been underscored by the pandemic. The native of Stow, Massachusetts, anticipates senior year will be more like her first than the middle two.

“I really am kind of expecting it to go back to pretty normal,” Recko said.

Colby, which enrolls about 2,000 students, brought most of its students back to campus in the fall while launching a $10 million health plan for in-person instruction amid the pandemic. Approximately 75% of faculty have been teaching classes with an in-person element.

Abby Recko, a 20-year-old junior, is studying biology and religious studies at Colby College in Waterville. Recko of Stow, Massachusetts, is on campus Thursday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Karlene Burrell-McRae, dean of Colby College, feels “hopeful” as the 2020-21 academic year heads toward the home stretch.

Karlene Burrell-McRae is dean of Colby College. Submitted photo

“In this moment, we showed the best of who we are,” Burrell-McRae said.

For Colby, pandemic planning started early. The college had to quarantine some students upon return from the college’s Jan Plan, an exploratory program the college runs in January. Burrell-McRae believes Colby may have been the first school to take action. In March, Burrell-McRae remembers hosting an open forum with college President David A. Greene and students to talk about next steps.

“We talked about our hopes and aspirations to stay open as long as we could, and if we had made the decision to go remote it would be because we decided we couldn’t keep students safe or the Waterville community safe,” Burrell-McRae said. “It was incredible. In 24 hours we had to make that decision, unbeknownst to us … we’d have to make it that quickly.”

Last March 12, Greene wrote in a letter to the community asking students to move out by March 15. After a two-week spring break, the college began remote classes for the remainder of the semester.

Recko was in a seminar on religious violence. Recko and classmates thought if Bowdoin College in Brunswick closed, then that might mean the same for Colby.

“In the middle of the class, we got the email that we had to go in two days,” Recko said. “Our professor was like, ‘I guess I’ve got to let you go pack now. See you on Zoom.'”

Finishing the spring semester remotely also brought forth conversations about the fall. Colby officials wanted to provide as many in-person opportunities as possible. In planning for a fall return, Colby instituted a robust and widely touted testing program for students, staff and faculty. The $10 million plan includes COVID-19 testing three times per week this semester. Outdoor classes and activities were encouraged to a more intentional degree.

Abby Recko, a 20-year-old junior, is studying biology and religious studies at Colby College in Waterville. Recko of Stow, Massachusetts, stands beside the pillars of Miller Library on Thursday at the Colby campus. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“This was not administration and students; it was, ‘Here’s an opportunity for us to be a community,'” Burrell-McRae said.

Recko said this year has been “surprisingly normal,” because all Colby students are back on campus. Four of her five classes this semester are in person. Recko expects COVID-19 testing to continue into next year, but is excited to potentially utilize more communal spaces on campus again.

“I’m excited to have campus open up again, so I can sit and do work and see people I know,” Recko said.

KENNEBEC VALLEY COMMUNITY COLLEGE

At Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield, President Richard Hopper said that 482 students are expected to graduate at the end of the spring semester, an increase of 104 from last year.

“A lot has changed, but we remain focused on building the local workforce and providing affordable higher education,” Hopper said.

Richard Hopper Submitted photo

“What this tells us is that many students concentrated on completing their programs, some of whom benefitted from extra resources from the CARES Act,” Hopper said, referring to the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in spring 2020. “The KVCC’s Registrar’s office was also very focused on reaching out to students with just a few credits to go and encouraging them to finish up to be ready for the coming workforce surge.”

He added that CARES Act funding was provided to both the institution and students; almost $500,000 was distributed directly to students in the last year. Moving forward, KVCC has been awarded Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) funds for the coming year and Hopper expects a similar amount of funds to be distributed among students with financial need.

The use of the funding allowed KVCC to ensure that everyone had access to a laptop and internet, to make sure that buildings and classrooms were sanitized, and to have faculty trained on online learning.

KVCC also donated ventilators and personal protective equipment to local area hospitals.

Looking at enrollment numbers, Hopper says that KVCC saw a 9%-10% decline in full-time equivalent enrollment in the past year, but is seeing an uptick in registrations for the fall semester. This week, the college will announce a return to in-person learning plan with conditions pending on coronavirus restrictions.

“Given the higher level of unemployment and the number of people who put off college this past year, there is a fair amount of pent-up demand,” Hopper said.

As for learning styles, KVCC has flipped its typical instructional configuration from 30% remote and 70% in-person, to 70% remote and 30% in person. Additionally, the number of students allowed in labs and classrooms has been restricted to accommodate social distancing protocols. In some cases, remote learning is not an option. Certain programs, including welding, electrical, machining, nursing and physical therapy, are all courses that cannot be offered online and require hands-on learning, Hopper said.

Graduation will be held remotely; a recorded commencement will be broadcast May 15.

“We are optimistic about the following spring 2022 when we hope to return to having in-person commencement as we had always done prior to the pandemic,” Hopper said.

UNIVERSITY OF MAINE AT AUGUSTA

As a “distanced” school already, the University of Maine at Augusta did not have to change the structure of classes much to fit the new normal.

Rebecca Wyke, president of the University of Maine at Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

UMA has its main campus in Augusta, but also has a location in Bangor. In addition to the campuses, the university has eight learning centers at all corners of the state and 32 “receive” sites, where students in rural areas can have access to internet and broadband.

“We are a largely distanced education institution,” UMA President Rebecca Wyke said. “About 50% of courses are either online or through video conferencing. … We already had the infrastructure in place.”

With UMA’s different locations across the state, the school only had 19 COVID-19 cases in its fall semester. Every student stepping foot on campus has to take a weekly coronavirus test, Wyke said, and test results are sent up to the University of Maine at Orono to process. Results can be accessed on a smartphone application in up to 72 hours.

Graduation in the spring will be virtual for both the class of 2020 and 2021, and Wyke does not expect the graduation numbers to change because of the coronavirus. However, she does expect the university enrollment rate to change.

“Our population is two-thirds adult and two-thirds part-time workers,” she said. “We have a lot of students raising families and working to try and raise money, and we have found (they were) the hardest hit. They made it through the spring by the skin of their teeth.”

Wyke said in comparison to normal years, enrollment is down 1.7%, but they are planning for next year’s budget despite enrollment numbers potentially going down. She added that most of the coronavirus costs were paid for by the $1.3 million the school received in coronavirus relief money and the university had a balanced budget this year.

The use of Zoom has encouraged the use of student services and Wyke expects that change to stay, but thinks the students benefit from a mix of  in-person and remote classes.

“We are looking at opportunities on how we can engage students at a distance better,” she said. “I do think things are going to change for the better because of the experience we had.”

THOMAS COLLEGE

Back at Thomas College, the Waterville school made plans for a return this past fall, with students, faculty and staff undergoing weekly, and now twice weekly, COVID-19 testing. The college is keeping up its graduation rate, with 238 grads during the calendar year 2020 and 220 slated to graduate this spring with more to come in the summer.

Approximately 80% of Thomas College courses this year include an in-person element.

Steele Young, the Thomas sophomore, has three fully in-person classes this semester, as well as two classes that are blended with one session per week in person and one virtual, and one class that is totally virtual.

Steele Young, a second-year student at Thomas College in Waterville, on Thursday in the hallway of the Alfond Academic Center on campus. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“It has been an amazing journey of incredible challenge and growth — what a ride,” Lachance said. “The fact that we’ve been on campus this whole year is nothing short of a miracle. I’m so entirely proud of our community to come together in a short period of time to tackle a challenge bigger than we ever probably could’ve imagined.”

Now approaching the home stretch of his sophomore year, Young is experiencing things for the first time that he did not think would come this far into his college experience.

“It’s a little strange being at this point in this year and never experiencing a spring semester fully,” Young said. “I have a lot of friends who are upperclassmen, and they’ve been able to experience the graduations and what it’s like when it starts to become summer on campus.”

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