Bates College Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — While at least one of its peers among New England’s small colleges is shutting down its classrooms to avoid spreading the potentially deadly coronavirus, Bates College says it anticipates “a smooth finish to our academic year.”

As many colleges and universities across the country are closing classrooms, Bates President Clayton Spencer told students in a Tuesday message, “We do not have plans at this time to suspend our winter semester on campus.”

But Bates is getting ready in case its officials change their minds as they cope with the threat posed by the fast-spreading COVID-19. The fate of Bates’ short-term courses in May is especially uncertain.

Ryan Lizanecz, Bates’ student government president, said Tuesday, “Students are concerned about the end of the year, particularly seniors who may have to spend their last few weeks in college at home.”

More generally, though, Lizanecz said Bates students “appear quite concerned about their families and home cities where the virus is currently active.”

“A lot of my friends from larger cities have been talking to their parents daily about the virus,” he said.

Malcolm Hill, the vice president for academic affairs at Bates, said in a March 5 message to the faculty that “it is wise to prepare for potential disruptions.”

An emergency response team established last month to consider how best to deal with the new virus has been coordinating the college’s response, which includes asking the faculty “to prepare for the possibility of completing the semester’s coursework in ways that would not require in-person teaching.”

Hill told professors that as they think about the last weeks of the semester, which ends in mid-April, “I ask that you consider how your classes might be affected by changes in our ability to meet in person, to travel off campus, to deliver the last week or weeks of classes or to schedule honors thesis defenses.”

He said the college has increased its access to online teaching tools and ensured it has the computer bandwidth to support widespread use of them by professors and students “if this technology becomes a necessary means of delivering course content.”

Faculty were also urged “to consider, if events warrant, being flexible with aspects of their courses,” such as attendance and exam policies.

The possibility of students being sent home until the start of the next academic year appears much more real after the announcement late Monday by Amherst College in Massachusetts that its students, who are on spring break, should not return to campus as planned. Middlebury College in Vermont made the same decision Tuesday. Both intend to try to finish the semester with remote learning.

Biddy Martin, president of Amherst, said in a message to students and faculty: “The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now.”

A number of other colleges and universities, including Harvard and Princeton, are also shifting to online teaching to finish out their semesters. Harvard told students Tuesday they have until March 15 to move out of its dorms.

Bates College has a different academic calendar than most colleges so its spring break occurs after the second semester, in the second half of April. In May, most of its students return for a monthlong, short term where they each take a single class.

Bates does not have a natural break until exams end April 18.

Spencer said in her message Tuesday that Amherst’s timing “is informed by the timing of the college’s spring break, which will involve large numbers of students and others traveling in the next 10 days to many destinations where they may be exposed to the COVID-19 virus.”

That is the same scenario Bates may face, if the virus remains a concern, when it reaches the end of its winter semester.

In addition to its academic preparations, Bates said it has suspended any college-sponsored travel to countries with the most serious outbreaks — China, South Korea, Iran and Italy, for now — in order to minimize the risk of infection.

It is not clear if planned, short-term classes that included trips to Spain, Japan, England and several of the United States or hard-hit Washington, D.C., may be disrupted.

The college said administrators “are collaborating with faculty and students participating in off-campus Short Term 2020 courses to anticipate and plan should there be disruptions.” They are also working on what to do about students who plan to study abroad in the fall in countries that may be cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as potential hot spots for COVID-19.

Bates is also taking steps on campus to prevent spread of the virus or other respiratory diseases. These steps include intensified cleaning efforts, especially in “high-touch areas.”

Bates is also posting information on campus about how to avoid the spread of the disease.

Its emergency response team, chaired by Geoffrey Swift, vice president of finance and administration, has been meeting regularly to consider what Bates should do. Among its subcommittees are those looking into off-campus study and “quarantine contingency planning.”

The college is also considering what to do about students who come from hard-hit areas and may not be able to return when the semester ends.

In a message sent to students, Swift said Bates “is prepared to work with international students and U.S. citizens who live abroad should their travel back to their home countries at the end of this academic year be affected by public health concerns.”

So far, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine, but little testing has been done. The state only began testing Tuesday for the virus at its Health & Environmental Testing Laboratory in Augusta.

The U.S. government declared COVID-19 a public health emergency Jan. 31 after the World Health Organization issued a warning. The federal CDC says it expects more cases in the coming days and considers it likely “that at some point, widespread transmission” of the virus will occur in the United States.

What is especially worrisome, according to the CDC, is that when the virus spreads, “public health and health care systems may become overloaded, with elevated rates of hospitalizations and deaths. Other critical infrastructure, such as law enforcement, emergency medical services and sectors of the transportation industry may also be affected. Health care providers and hospitals may be overwhelmed.”

There is no known vaccine for the coronavirus and no approved medication to treat the disease, which appears to hit older, frailer people especially hard.

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