This weekend, St. Joseph’s College President Jim Dlugos wrote a letter to the campus community saying that the school had detected nine cases of COVID-19 — most from a single residence hall — and would move to remote classes for the next two weeks.
The liberal arts school, based in Standish, has approached policing student behavior during the pandemic with fewer restrictions than several other schools in the state. But campus officials say, despite the outbreak, they feel the approach has worked so far.
St. Joseph’s College spokesperson Oliver Griswold says the college has taken several steps to limit spread of the virus during the semester, including testing, masks and social distancing. But its approach also contrasts with reopening plans at some other schools, in Maine and nationally, which may require testing students up to two or three times per week, prohibiting out-of-state travel and threatening to come down hard on students who don’t follow the protocols.
Griswold says a lot of St. Joseph’s‘ strategy has been based around trust — the school doesn’t restrict where students can travel, and it has yet to punish any students so far this fall.
“We have been able to take more of a conversational approach, talking to folks who might not be behaving the way we’ve expected them to. But we have not had widespread disciplinary action to date, and I don’t think we’re planning on that. This is a community that’s built on compassion and respect. Those are core values of ours. And it feels like it’s been working very well. And we’re going to continue to work with our students, rather than against them, to keep everybody safe,” he says.
But on Saturday, the school announced that it had identified nine students on campus who tested positive for COVID-19. Griswold was unable to comment on how the students may have come into contact with the virus, but added that the school quickly acted to test and quarantine them.
Griswold says the campus will “study-in-place” for two weeks as it investigates the outbreaks. That means remote classes and commuter students staying at home, though outdoor activities and sports practices can continue. The school will also test all of its approximately 1,000 students on campus over the next two weeks.
And Griswold says the school views its strategy as a success so far: while some colleges nationwide have opened, then had outbreaks of the virus, that hasn’t been the case at St. Joseph’s.
“We are going to continue to trust our students to do the right thing. They’ve upheld that trust, in large part, over the last month. We haven’t had reports of huge parties, huge gatherings. I look outside my window and I see masks everywhere. They’ve been doing a really good job, pulling together and trying to stay on campus for the entire semester,” he says.
But for many colleges, the strategy for the fall has been more strict. Sunday was the first day that Bowdoin College in Brunswick allowed students to even leave campus. And they’re still under several restrictions: only about 40 percent are back on campus. Almost all classes are still being taught remotely.
Even now, says Bowdoin Treasurer Matt Orlando, students may only leave for essential needs and cannot leave Maine.
“So the last thing we wanted is to bring to Brunswick, Maine, COVID-19 from other parts of the country, and spread it locally,” he says.
At many schools, students are asked to sign pledges committing to masking, social distancing and even getting vaccinated for the flu in the fall. And some students have already faced consequences.
In August, the University of Maine disciplined eight students for violating campus protocols. Shortly after, the University of New England announced that it was reviewing the conduct of 17 students at a party, with potentially severe consequences.
UNE President James Herbert says the school is trying to educate students about the rules, but they will reprimand them, if needed.
“It’s really a shared responsibility. The students have a responsibility for doing the right thing. But we, at the university, have a responsibility for providing opportunities for them, to gather together — creative opportunities for them to come together safely,” he says.
At Waterville’s Thomas College, President Laurie Lachance says a substantial piece of her school’s safety plan is around creating those kinds of safe events: things like drive-in movies, outdoor open mic nights and a disc golf course to help dissuade students from gathering unsafely.
“That’s been something that’s been in my heart as the fall was approaching. Like, we have to do something very different. And it has to be fun. It has to be engaging. And it has to draw students out of old patterns of behavior,” she says.
Lachance says the school has not reported any cases of COVID-19 on campus so far, and hasn’t had any disciplinary issues, either. But even with limited transmission, Lachance and other college leaders say they’re still nervous about what the rest of the semester could hold.
Originally published at 5:16 p.m. Sept. 14, 2020.