This week, students are beginning to arrive back on campus at colleges across Maine, and many are being greeted with new procedures: increased hygiene, new behavior rules, and lots of COVID-19 tests. In fact, some colleges are testing students as much as two or three times per week in hopes of containing a virus that has already led to outbreaks at other schools across the country.
The Moore family had mixed feelings as they dropped their son, Garrett, off at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus on Wednesday. Garrett, a freshman from Springfield, Vermont, is excited for his first year, even though it comes in the midst of a pandemic.
“I wasn't entirely sure where I wanted to go at first. But I knew I wanted to go to college. And I saw that Maine was doing really well with the COVID situation, so it was pretty easy to pick somewhere in Maine.”
But even with Maine's relatively low transmission rate, his parents, Crystal and Nate, have been a bit more hesitant about dropping him off.
"He's our one and only. We've definitely got a lot of mixed feelings. We're glad that he's here," Crystal says.
"But not too far away," Nate says. "Within driving distance."
Yet the family says those fears have been somewhat alleviated as they have learned about the school's intensive COVID-19 testing procedures. USM, like all of Maine's public universities, is requiring all out-of-state students, those living in residence halls, and select others to be tested and quarantined as soon as they get to campus. They will then be tested again, about a week later.
“If this is going to work anywhere, it's going to work in Maine,” says Dannel Malloy, the chancellor of the University of Maine System. He says he is encouraged by Maine's low transmission rates and feels that the current trajectory of the virus has made it safe to reopen.
But Malloy says new protocols have been added systemwide to try to monitor and control the virus. They include behavior policies, rules against large gatherings and parties, limited residence hall and class sizes, and testing throughout the semester. Malloy estimates that about 2,000 on-campus students and staff will be tested every 10 days across the system's seven public university campuses.
“Ultimately, we want to keep people safe. We want to deliver them the education they want, the ways they want it. We want to 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.”
And in Maine, other colleges intend to be even more ambitious in their efforts to stay ahead of the virus. At
, Bates and Bowdoin Colleges, students will be tested far more frequently — two to three times per week. Colby Vice President and General Counsel Richard Uchida says that the strategy should allow the school to detect cases extremely early, just a few days after a student is infected.
“If you're testing only once a week, you can do the math and figure out that by the time that you've tested that student or a faculty member yet again, the virus is spreading in massive ways,” says Uchida. “That's why that two times a week, three times a week testing is critically important to the way in which we are protecting our community here.”
Despite the testing, about 200 Colby students will still be learning remotely this fall, though that includes many who cannot get back to the United States because of limits on international travel.
Senior Ashlee Guevara says she has still heard some anxiety from some students about potential exposure as they return. But she says the rigorous testing has helped ease some of those fears.
“I think that the testing protocol like that is really what puts a lot of students at ease.”
Yet for many schools across the country, accessing and affording widespread testing can be prohibitive. In Maine, most colleges are instead testing a portion of students periodically.
At St. Joseph's, a private college in Standish, spokesperson Oliver Griswold says administrators are banking on the testing of some students and wastewater, as well as new rules and procedures, which he says will not get in the way of education.
“People are at St. Joe's because they want and need to learn,” Griswold says. “And so we also factored that in terms of, if we can keep people safe with the layered approach, which we certainly think we can, can we maybe not do that sweeping, all-campus testing, three times a week? Because that felt sort of disruptive to the learning process.”
St. Joseph's and other schools say they have been working hand-in-hand with public health officials to create their testing plans. But some outside experts are concerned that it might not be enough.
David Palteil is a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, where researchers recently ran simulations of how much testing would be needed to safely reopen colleges and limit outbreaks. Palteil says they found that frequent testing of every student multiple times per week — as is happening at Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin — is necessary to control outbreaks.
“That's a pretty high bar,. And we realized that logistically and financially, that may very well be beyond the capacity of many universities,” Palteil says. “So, you know, we're painfully aware of the fact that what we're suggesting would be necessary, may not be feasible, doesn't make sense. But that doesn't mean it isn't important. And any school that can't see its way toward meeting those standards really needs to ask itself if it has any business reopening.”
Palteil says that even with proper safety protocols, the virus can still spread quickly through asymptomatic students if there is not enough testing. In recent weeks, several colleges nationwide have already seen outbreaks on campus, and some have called off in-person classes completely for the fall.
Colleges are hoping that Maine's rural nature and low transmission rates can help prevent outbreaks as students begin to settle in. And they're also enforcing new behavior rules to prevent parties and large gatherings. Already, seven students at the University of Maine have been cited for violating Center for Disease Control and university health guidelines.