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UMaine System Wants Students To Stay On Campus For Spring Break To Prevent Coronavirus Spread

An aerial view of the University of Maine in Orono.

The University of Maine System is encouraging students to stay on its campuses over spring break next week in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

In a statement, Chancellor Dannel Malloy says the system is planning to keep its dorms and dining halls open over spring break, and university leaders are planning to potentially accommodate thousands of students with no additional room or board charges.

(Related: What Mainers Need To Know About The Coronavirus)

Malloy says the university system is also prohibiting all nonessential travel sponsored by the university.

While Malloy says that there are no plans to close any campuses at this point, colleges are putting in place procedures to ensure that classes will continue online if any schools are forced to shut down.

No cases of the new coronavirus have yet to be reported in Maine.

Malloy spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about the system’s decision.

Flaherty: I’ve heard a lot about colleges and universities canceling classes, but I haven’t heard a lot about schools keeping their facilities open, although I know that’s what the CDC is recommending. How unusual is this, and how will it help stop the spread of coronavirus?

Malloy: Maine is a special place, and what we’re saying to our students who would otherwise be leaving to go to states where the outbreak is substantially larger, or there are many identified cases, or because people will be surging to a particular area of the country that the spread will naturally happen at higher rates, what we’re saying to students is don’t do it. Right now, we actually don’t have a recognized case in Maine as I speak to you, I’m sure we’re going to have some number of cases, but this might be a very safe place for you to stay. It’s not as warm as Miami. But there are going to be a lot fewer people carrying the virus here than there will be in Miami at least for the foreseeable future. Why not keep yourself as safe as possible? Then, in essence, at a number of our campuses by closing dormitories, we’re forcing people to go to areas where the virus is far more and widely spread. So I thought it was the right thing to do. And of course, we’re going to assess risks on a daily basis, a weekly basis. We’re going to promulgate additional rules or regulations as things develop and as we see best practices in the nation, but I think we have engaged in developing best practices here in Maine.

How is the system going to handle the additional cost of keeping the dorms open during spring break?

This is one of those things where you’re darned if you do and you’re darned if you don’t. We would save a lot of money by sending people home and closing our institutions and not having to pay to feed people. But that would be wrong to do. The idea that we would play a role in putting people at greater risk just doesn’t sound like the Maine thing to do. So we’re going to figure it out, to tell you the truth.

I have been just looking online, various schools have decided that they will just close their campuses and ask students to leave and not come back this year. Why has the UMaine System made a different decision?

As I’m talking to you today, we don’t have a confirmed case of the virus in Maine. Now, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have one eventually. But again, right now, our campuses are pretty darn safe. What I suppose in essence we’re saying is we’re in a better position to assure people if we discourage people from going to places that have more exposure. We don’t want those people coming back to the state of Maine and exposing people. The vast majority of our students are in fact Maine residents, but Maine residents like to go to Florida or the Caribbean during holidays too. And then we have a number of students who don’t have a place to go home. They’ve made arrangements to be here through May 9, their parents may have moved, they for some reason may not have a place to go back to. If we tell everybody they have to leave, what’s the guarantee they have any place to go to? Now that’s maybe a relatively small number of people, but they’re part of our family, and we should do the best we can to meet their needs.

Older people are more affected by COVID-19. What special accommodations do you anticipate making for, say, older faculty members to teach classes?

I think older faculty members will make their decision on how they want to proceed. We’re making it easier for older faculty or faculty with compromised health to go to online learning as soon as tomorrow. They have to notify the students and they have to notify their president and their provost, but I am saying quite clearly to the to that group of of our instructors that we want to protect you and we will do everything in our power to protect you.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Originally published March 10, 2020 at 10:19 a.m. ET.