A student walks across the Bates College Quad in Lewiston on Friday. College officials announced Friday morning they would close classrooms for the rest of the semester. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Faced with a growing threat from COVID-19, Bates College officials announced Friday morning they would close classrooms for the rest of the semester.

The 2,000-student liberal arts college plans to shift its teaching online on March 23 so students can complete their courses.

“We find ourselves in a situation that is, quite literally, beyond our control, Bates President Clayton Spencer said in a message to the college community. “I understand that the solutions we are offering are necessarily imperfect and place extra demands on all members of our community.”

Bates was the final holdout among the 11-member New England Small College Athletic Conference as it tried to hang on until the winter semester’s end April 18.

But college officials decided that public health necessities left them with no choice except to tell students to go home.

The move followed the announcement of three positive tests for COVID-19 in Maine, including an unidentified woman who lives in Androscoggin County, where Bates is located. The test results have not yet been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Students are expected to depart from Bates by Tuesday evening.

“Because we are not in a position to manage a serious outbreak on campus, we must ask that our students return home, and that our faculty prepare to teach remotely,” Spencer said. “This will ensure that our students are able to complete their winter semester, while also safeguarding the health and safety of the entire Bates community.”

After today, Bates will not have any classes at its campus. It urged students within driving distance of home to leave this weekend. Those with more complicated travel needs have until 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Next week, Spencer said, the college will work with its faculty and staff to help them shift courses for remote learning – mostly online – resuming on Monday, March 23.

Remote learning classes will continue until April 17, originally at the tail end of an exam period. Exams will be held from April 27 to May 2. Short term in May has been canceled.

The college has not decided yet whether to cancel its May 30 graduation ceremony.

“We are explicitly deferring any decisions regarding commencement at this point,” Spencer said to seniors. “I very much hope that it will be possible by the end of May to welcome you and your families back to celebrate your accomplishments and receive your diplomas in person.”

Bates already ordered its students who are studying abroad in most of Europe, China, South Korea and Japan to return to the United States and finish their work remotely.

They were told not to return to campus.

“We like you and look forward to seeing you, but not right now,” Bates’ Center for Global Education said on its website.

“Although healthy populations below the age of 30 — like most of our students — do not typically contract severe cases of COVID-19, young people are highly efficient transmitters of the disease, especially when they live and learn in close proximity on a college campus,” Spencer said.

“This poses a danger to anyone with compromised health, and especially to the significant numbers of faculty and staff on our campus in higher risk categories because of age or underlying conditions,” she said.

Spencer said she is “also mindful that many students, faculty and staff have expressed concern and anxiety about remaining on campus and in close quarters.”

She said she has heard from many students in the past week.

“Some have expressed their anxiety about staying on campus under current circumstances, and others have described to me how devastated they feel at the prospect of having to leave campus and their Bates world midsemester,” she said. “My heart goes out to all of our students, as these are genuinely stressful and difficult times. But this is an unprecedented situation, and we have no choice but to take this course of action.”

“Seniors,” she said, “I know that it is particularly painful for you, as we enter a period meant to be marked by celebration, to learn that you will not be able to end your Bates experience in the ways that you expected and looked forward to.”

She also expressed sympathy for faculty and staff struggling to shift to remote learning that they’ve never had to do before.

“Switching from in-person to remote classes on short notice is an enormous undertaking for us all,” the college said on its website. “We understand that the transition may at first be rocky, with questions arising daily.”

Colby College in Waterville pulled the plug on its semester earlier in the day Thursday.

Its president, David Greene, said in a prepared statement that he “desperately wanted to preserve the ability of our students, and especially our seniors, to fully experience spring semester on Mayflower Hill,” but realized the college would not be able “to adequately secure the health and safety of our community” if it remained open.

Colby, Bates and Hamilton College in New York were the final NESCAC holdouts trying to finish their semesters on campus. Each gave up on Thursday.

Colby urged students to depart from Waterville by Sunday evening, but acknowledged that may prove a hardship for some. It promised to help students who need financial assistance.

Colby plans to begin remote classes March 30.

The coronavirus, which has swept around the globe in the past couple of months, is present in nearly every state.

Experts say the best way to combat COVID-19 is to slow its spread to ensure the nation’s health care system has the capacity to help those who need it most, especially those who are old or having underlying health issues.

A student walks across the Bates College campus in Lewiston on Friday. College officials announced Friday morning they would close classrooms for the rest of the semester. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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