There are still no reported cases of the new coronavirus in Maine, but both the University of Maine system and Bowdoin College announced Wednesday that students will no longer be allowed on campuses after spring break in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Both plan to continue classes online for the rest of the semester. Other campuses in the state are watching the situation closely, but are staying open for the time being.
In a letter to students and faculty Wednesday, Bowdoin President Clayton Rose said that the college decided to prohibit students from returning to the Brunswick campus after spring break in order to protect those within the community "who are most at risk from COVID-19."
Scott Hood, the college's vice president for communications and public affairs, says the school realized that if some students did return to campus from spring break with the disease, Bowdoin likely would not have the ability to properly isolate large groups of people.
“So rather than attempt to manage what would be the required isolation of anyone who is infected, especially with the possibility that we could be dealing with a large number of students, we've decided to complete the semester using remote learning techniques.”
Later in the day, the University of Maine system made a similar announcement, saying that all on-campus residential students would need to make plans to leave their universities before spring break ends March 22. Spokesperson Dan Demeritt says that the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States, as well as the declaration of the virus as a pandemic, made the university system ultimately decide to shift to online and distance courses for the rest of the semester.
“We're fortunate that we don't have any declared cases yet in Maine. But we wanted to take these steps because we knew that, ultimately, thousands of students would be travelling across the country, and in some cases, the world. And we wanted to do all we could, given our unique position as a public university, to limit the exposure and spread of the disease.”
Demeritt says that dorms and dining halls will stay open for certain students who might not be able to return home, including international students and those who've aged out of foster care. “We'll be working with those students and finding solutions for them.”
Other colleges in the state say they're watching the situation very closely, but “our plan right now is to remain open, and more or less business as usual, following spring break.”
James Herbert, president of the University of New England in Biddeford, says UNE has already taken several steps to reduce exposure by encouraging students to reduce travel and cancelling many study abroad experiences.
Herbert says school officials are continually meeting to monitor the situation as it changes. But he says that at the moment, he feels confident in the university's plans for protecting student and community health.
“To give you just one example, we have emptied out a dorm by moving students around. So that we have a dorm that is sitting there, empty, and is available should we need to quarantine students in that dorm.”
Lewiston's Bates College is also planning to stay open. In a letter to students and parents, President Clayton Spencer says that because Bates doesn't have a spring break before the end of the semester in mid-April, it is not planning to suspend any in-person classes on campus. But the college says that it is prohibiting all "college-sponsored, non-essential travel for students and staff," as well as large group gatherings on campus.
At the moment, College of the Atlantic has indicated it will also stay open over its break next week. But COA spokesperson Rob Levin says that could change quickly.
"At this time, we are seriously considering the eventuality that we might have to move to an online modality for spring trimester and close the residence halls and food service," COA spokesperson Rob Levin wrote in an emailed statement. "We are meeting to determine this and will be making a decision by the end of the week."