Most colleges in Maine have resumed in-person classes this fall, but with all kinds of new precautions: masks, travel restrictions, socially distanced classes and “no-party” policies among them. Yet a small group of professors and students at Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic has been able to avoid those restrictions, and are meeting in-person with no social distancing required.
The idea began mostly as a joke at a College of the Atlantic faculty meeting earlier this year.
“When we were discussing how we were going to proceed with the fall term, and said, what are we supposed to do? Have students live in little pods at our houses?” says Reuben Hudson, who teaches chemistry.
Hudson says everyone laughed at the idea at first. But he says he then talked with his wife, Kit Hamley, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology who taught at COA last spring. And she says they looked outside at their sprawling property in Monroe, north of Belfast. It’s filled with trees, rolling hills and remnants of old mills and rock quarries.
“We’re on about 90 acres. And the cool thing is that two sides of it are river. It takes a 90 degree turn. We’re bordered on two sides by river, one side abuts our neighbor’s field, then the rest is this dead-end dirt road. So pretty remote, pretty private, and a good place to learn,” she says.
With help from the school, Hamley and Hudson conceived of a plan that would allow in-person classes while still reducing the risk of viral transmission. They decided to turn their farm into its own remote campus.
About 10 students and four faculty members would come and stay for about two months. They’d all be tested twice at the beginning, with no visitors. (Maine Public reporter Robbie Feinberg was the only guest the farm has had since classes started a few weeks ago, and he wore a mask and stayed outside, keeping his distance from the group.)
“We’re basically here. Nobody comes or goes except to pick up curbside grocery orders at the grocery store, or bulk food orders from the COA kitchen. And that’s sort of how we keep our bubble safe,” Hudson says.
On a recent morning, the students are seated in a circle on the grass and discuss a scientific study, as part of one of their classes here, before walking through the woods to teach each other about pine and beech trees.
There are no masks. No social distancing. Students eat elbow-to-elbow and hug each other. They describe it as almost like summer camp, spending almost every class and mealtime together, sleeping in tents or in a stove-heated cabin Hamley and Hudson built by the river.
Junior Isidora Munoz says transitioning away from a life of social distancing took some adjustment. But it was also part of the appeal of coming to the farm, particularly after a spring semester of remote learning that didn’t always go smoothly.
“I also felt that this was a very unique experience to have, because it was, like, when, ever again, are you going to be able to go to this kind of small heaven, in the middle of a pandemic situation?” she says.
But some students say they’re conflicted about living in a bubble as their classmates at COA continue to face the pandemic, which has transformed their college and so many others. Back on campus, masks are required in most places. And buildings are lined with new signs and arrows to promote social distancing.
“It feels almost guilty to be here, to talk to friends who are back in Bar Harbor and hear their experiences of ‘Yep, every day’s the same. Yep, still don’t have any motivation to do anything,’” says junior Nora Hyman. “For me to be taking walks in the woods and talking about trees and picking tomatoes from the farm and then cooking them in the kitchen — I do feel this little morsel of guilt.”
But Hamley says the classes at her farm have seemed to resonate with students, who she says have been more engaged than in any course she’s taught before.
“And I think part of that is because we all, over the last six months, kind of realized what was missing, you know, and in our education, and in teaching experiences. And so I think now, we’re taking all of that less for granted than we did before,” she says.
But the program isn’t permanent. Given the cold winter ahead and the faculty’s other responsibilities, it will come to an end in November. But students here on the farm say it’s been a relief to just focus on their classes for at least a few months.
Originally published at 5:35 p.m. Sept. 30, 2020.