Daffodils are dancing in the breeze at Bates College in Lewiston, but there’s almost nobody around to see them. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — When Bates College students realized they’d been left out of the college’s formal planning process for how to cope with COVID-19 when the next academic year gets underway, they began speaking out.

“It’s really disappointing that the Bates administration is not including student voices in their plans for the fall,” said Ryan Lizanecz, president of the student government.

“After all,” he said, “students are ultimately customers here and are paying the bills. They deserve at least to have their voices heard, particularly in terms of the fate of their academic year.”

“It is essential that we have students on the fall planning ad hoc committee because the decision that is made in the committee has an impact on all students,” said Lebanos Mengistu, one of two incoming student government co-presidents.

The student newspaper ran an informal poll that found more than 90% of students thought they ought to be represented on the two working groups established by the college to examine the financial and practical issues involved in reopening.

College officials are clearly listening to student complaints.

Mengistu said Thursday that he’d just gotten off a Zoom session with the fall planning committee and student government leaders, an indication that officials are beginning to reach out.

Bates College President Clayton Spencer Provided photo

Bates President Clayton Spencer said in a Friday letter to students and families that the dean of students, members of the fall planning team and others are “in communication with a number of different constituencies, including parents and the executive board of student government” as they plow through a hefty workload.

The committees are trying to determine what it will take to have students return in the fall. Some new measures spurred by concerns about the deadly new coronavirus are a certainty, but no details are expected until late June.

Spencer said in her letter that among the other possibilities are “possible changes to the academic calendar, including modifications to break schedules to limit travel, changes to teaching models, and working with our faculty on remote teaching and learning.”

Spencer did not get into much detail, but the president of nearby Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Clayton Rose, told students recently that if they can return to campus in the fall, “things will be different from what we have known.”

“Among other measures, we will have to reduce density on campus to ensure that we can practice physical distancing in our classrooms, in residence and dining halls, and in our social spaces,” he said.

Changes will be necessary in athletics, performances and more, Rose said.

“This may mean having the ability to both test broadly and regularly for the virus and to quarantine anyone who is infected,” he said.

Colby College in Waterville is also exploring how to operate safely.

It has groups “reviewing approaches to health care management (including testing); housing and dining capacity and protocols; classroom, office, and laboratory occupancy, utilization and cleaning; and, student, faculty, and staff support and accommodation procedures, among others,” according to a Friday message to students from Provost Margaret McFadden and Douglas Terp, its chief financial officer.

Colby’s president, David Greene, said last week his priority is to have “a full academic year on campus,” even if it means “a later opening” that would require elimination of the winter session in January or extending the spring semester into the summer of 2021.

Colby has a group devoted to exploring options with the idea of presenting choices by June 5. It aims to have a plan in place by early July.

Bowdoin established two committees along the same lines as Bates to work out the details of what it should do. It put students on both of them.

So far, there aren’t any students on the Bates panels.

Bates College

Mengistu said it is “imperative that student voices are heard and valued” because “what makes Bates the great community it is are its students.”

He said the college has “done a tremendous job of supporting students through “these trying times,” an assessment Lizanecz shares.

Mengistu said now that the fall planning panel has reached out to students, the student government “will continue to stay in touch to have student voices heard.”

But it is also, he said, “working on getting students more involved” in the process.

In her Friday note to students, Spencer said the campus has been “strangely quiet” since the March 13 decision to send everybody home to finish the semester remotely.

In the weeks that followed, changes piled up, from revisions to grading policy to wiping out the May short term to postponing any sort of in-person commencement for graduating seniors.

Spencer said the college “worked hard to make the student experience a priority” as it made its choices “while also living up to our responsibilities” to its employees.

It has also taken steps to control costs, from a freeze on hiring to putting off nonessential operations and projects.

The two committees Spencer established last month are supposed to make institutional recommendations next month about how Bates should proceed in terms of both its finances and its fall semester.

“The essence of our educational model is that our students live and learn in a residential community through a rich array of experiences inside and outside the classroom,” she said. “It is thus our fervent hope that it will be safe to welcome new and returning students in person in the fall, and we are actively working toward that goal.”

Spencer said officials are focused on the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and their impact on the greater community. She said they are working closely with experts on staff, at Central Maine Medical Center and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, among others.

The goal, she said, is “to ensure that we will be prepared to implement best practices for sanitation, transmission risk management, and other ways of keeping our community safe when we are able to resume on-campus learning.”

It’s already clear it won’t be a typical semester come fall. Operating in “a new environment,” as Spencer put it, is bound to require the college to adapt to an evolving public health situation.

The president of one of the other colleges in the same conference as Bates, Biddy Martin at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, explained in greater detail recently in a message she sent to the Amherst community.

Martin raised the possibility that Amherst might conclude it would not be safe for students to return to campus in the fall. She said faculty at her college will be working over the summer to prepare for better online courses in case that proves necessary.

She also warned that if students do come back to campus, as she hopes, “there are a number of things we would need to ask of you, based on what we know now.”

“You might need to wear masks everywhere you go and, for your own safety, wear gloves in many contexts,” Martin said, adding that Amherst is collecting the necessary supplies.

In addition, she said, “We may need to require that you limit your movement to on-campus locations only; that you are willing to be tested; that you monitor your temperature; and that you make use of oximeters to track oxygen levels.”

“The most difficult, but equally necessary, responsibility would be your compliance with social distancing guidelines, which will very likely prohibit large gatherings and may significantly limit the number of people with whom you can be in close proximity,” Martin said.

“We would need to know that you are willing to take these measures in order to protect yourselves, other students, and our faculty and staff,” she said.

Martin mentioned that students with health risks or travel issues may have to work remotely no matter what the college is able to figure out.

Even students on campus may wind up working remotely or from an unusual location because there are faculty members who can’t risk exposure.

Martin said Amherst is eyeing the possibility of shifting around its normal scheduling so students spend some time on campus, a month to seven weeks, and then go home. She mentioned they’re already figuring out scenarios where the college has to help with higher travel costs that some students can’t afford.

The issues on the agenda at Amherst are not much different than they are at Bates, with one big exception: Bates doesn’t have the financial depth that Amherst and some of the other New England Small College Athletic Association institutions possess.

Spencer said in her message that Bates hopes to announce its plans for the next academic year by the end of June.


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