Colleges and universities in Maine and around the country are preparing for students to return to campuses in the fall, though how that looks and whether students will receive in-person learning or will have to study remotely are among the questions schools are starting to explore.

Officials in the University of Maine System as well as at private colleges and universities are hopeful the coronavirus pandemic will have abated by August and they can welcome students back safely, but said they are bound by the best guidance they can get from public health officials.

They are looking at whether they need to alter their operations, either by offering smaller classes or changing the structure of student housing; implementing social distancing rules in classrooms and labs; pushing back the start of fall classes; or even continuing with distance learning.

“These are not small challenges to confront,” University of New England President James Herbert said in a letter to the community Tuesday. “And so many of the variables that will determine what the educational landscape actually looks like in the fall remain unknown at this time.”

The virus already threatens to impact student enrollments in the fall. If campuses are forced to extend remote learning or modify their offerings, it could have broader financial and curricular implications, including a loss of social and learning experiences and tuition revenue.

The University of Maine System, with seven campuses across the state, is planning to welcome students back in person this fall, but will adapt as needed and phase-in face-to-face instruction.

“As we return to traditional practices it will have to be done appropriately,” said Dan Demeritt, the system spokesman. That could mean precautions like no large lectures or a move to single- rather than double-occupancy dorm rooms.

The public university system last week announced it would be moving all summer classes online, though decisions on other events like summer camps and new student orientations are yet to be made and will be based on guidance at the time. The system also has extended pass/fail options this semester. Most campuses were already test-optional, and that will extend to the flagship in Orono for the coming year.

“Maine students and families can trust Maine’s public universities will be open and operational in the fall,” Demeritt said. “We plan to offer face-to-face instruction on our campuses but will adapt as needed. We will meet our students where they are and deliver the support they need to succeed.”

At UNE, Herbert has charged an ad hoc committee with exploring the possibility the virus is contained and students can return to campus, but the university still needs to plan for how to deal with the possibility of an outbreak.

In another scenario Herbert has asked campus leaders to consider, the virus has not been contained to the degree in-person classes could resume and plans would need to be made to continue online instruction with a return to campus later in the fall or in the spring of 2021.

“In the interim, we would face real challenges when it comes to assimilating new students into our campus communities, meeting the needs of students in programs requiring hands-on learning as critical components of their curriculum, maintaining the momentum of our global education programs, and so on,” Herbert said. “This scenario is obviously not what we are hoping for, but we would be remiss not to plan for this contingency.”

Bates College in Lewiston and Bowdoin College in Brunswick have announced similar plans. In a letter Tuesday, Bates President Clayton Spencer announced an ad hoc working group that will spend the next six to 10 weeks planning for the fall semester and addressing the financial implications of the pandemic.

Bowdoin President Clayton Rose announced the formation of similar committees April 2, saying in a letter to the community that the virus will mean hard financial decisions, including reducing or eliminating some programs.

In addition to a budget review committee, another committee will look at what preparations need to be made to bring students back to campus including things like how and where students are housed, protocols for dining, social distancing rules in the classroom and in laboratories, and the implications for music, theater, dance and athletics.

Later this semester, another group led by faculty will be formed to develop further remote learning plans should the college be unable to bring students back in the fall or face a significant outbreak once students are on campus.

At Colby College, President David Greene said no decisions have been made about the fall semester, but the college is preparing to push back the start of classes if need be.

“My absolute priority is to have us back together again,” Greene said. “I would rather delay the start of the year and extend the year longer on the other side to be able to have people back on campus and learning in the kind of environment that is so powerful for the education that we offer.”

The virus is already having an impact on projected fall enrollments for schools nationally. Forbes reported last week on a new survey showing that as many as one-fifth of students who had been planning to start college may not attend now because of how the virus has impacted their families’ finances.

Greene said that hasn’t been the case at Colby, where the college is already ahead of last year in the number of students who have accepted spots for the incoming freshman class. The deadline for students to pay deposits to hold their spot is May 1.

But pushing back the start of fall classes – currently scheduled for Sept. 9 – could impact cash flow. The college also has taken a hit to its endowment, which currently stands at around $800 million, down from $870 million at the start of the fiscal year, due to a decline in financial markets.

It remains to be seen how travel restrictions related to the virus could impact international students, but Greene said Colby has not seen international enrollment impacted yet.

“That’s a hugely important question,” Greene said. “When we think about what travel restrictions and visa restrictions there might be, there are a lot of unknown questions for international students. We hope we will be able to have all of them on campus because they bring so much to Maine and to campuses.”

UNE, like some other campuses in Maine and elsewhere, has pushed its deadline for deposits to June 1. The university typically enrolls large numbers of students on accepted student days, but being unable to hold those events has contributed to new undergraduate enrollments being slightly behind.

Last week Herbert announced plans to forgo a planned 2.5 percent tuition increase as well as any room and board increases. He said the university is planning on being open in the fall, but cautioned that a return to campus might not be a return to normal.

“When I say open I don’t mean nothing changes and everyone comes back and hugs each other,” Herbert said. “We may have to have certain social distancing. I don’t know what it’s going to be. But I would rather open up, even if it means we have to modify how we do business, then not open up until we can open in a completely normal way.”

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