Last fall, Maine’s colleges were relatively successful in reopening. While some universities in other states saw thousands of cases of COVID-19, and some had to move to remote instruction, Maine’s schools were largely able to stay open. But they now face an even bigger challenge: welcoming students back as cases surge across the state.
St. Joseph’s College in Standish made a lot of changes in the fall to try to limit the spread of COVID-19: masking requirements, social distancing and even testing wastewater for the virus. But, unlike a few schools, it didn’t start out with a universal, asymptomatic testing program.
The college was able to stay open for most of the fall, but moved to remote classes in November after an outbreak. And spokesperson Oliver Griswold says this spring, with case rates hitting record levels, the school is drastically increasing testing to try to stay on top of the virus.
“We realized that we could fill some of the gaps that we had in the first semester, and we know a lot of different colleges that are doing exactly the same thing,” Griswold says.
The plan is for students to begin to return this upcoming Monday: first freshmen, then seniors a week later, sophomores a week after that and, finally, juniors. Each student will be tested multiple times as they arrive on campus, then weekly through the rest of the semester.
“Having this phased start, with a lot of testing, and then doing regular testing, avoids us having to make some of the adaptations we did last semester. In terms of ‘study in place,’ which we did for two weeks, and all the students were in their dorms and studying remotely from their dorms,” Griswold says. “We’re hoping to avoid that. And we think this gives us the best chance to do that.”
The plans are similar at other Maine colleges. In a letter last week, University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said that the system will test each on-campus student and staff member weekly, compared to testing just 10% of the on-campus community every 10 days last fall. The system is even planning to bring in a mobile testing lab later this month to more quickly process results from across the state’s seven public campuses.
A few of Maine’s private schools — Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges — launched universal screening programs last fall that tested every student about two times per week, a frequency that some public health experts say is needed to limit outbreaks on campus. Officials at Waterville’s Thomas College say they’re planning to test at a similar frequency this spring after seeing those schools’ success.
Douglas Terp, Colby College’s vice president for administration, says the college is now further expanding its testing program. Students who’ve already come back for Colby’s January term are being tested three times per week, with plans to continue that into the next semester.
“Having one more opportunity to get a test result,” Terp says. “That convinced us of doing three (tests) for January, and then beyond if we could do that, that made a lot of sense.”
While many Colby students have already returned to campus, students at Lewiston’s Bates College won’t come back until mid-February. Officials say they’re hoping that by returning later, the college can hopefully avoid bringing students in at the height of the latest surge in transmission.