LEWISTON – Bates College is eyeing “a very different campus” come fall, but one that will have students.

Bates College President Clayton Spencer told alumni in an online talk Saturday that the Lewiston college plans to reopen in the fall. Videoconferencing screenshot

President Clayton Spencer told alumni the college aims to open for students in early September and to send them home before Thanksgiving. They’ll take finals remotely, she said.

The key, college officials said, is to make sure they can keep students, faculty and staff safe during a pandemic that continues to pose risks. Details of how that will be done are still being worked out.

Like most colleges, Bates has been shut down since mid-March, its students finishing up their spring semester remotely, mostly online. It has been scrambling ever since to figure out how it could bring them back for the next academic year. The college has not made a formal decision yet that it can be done.

The college intends to divide the semester into two parts, with students taking two courses during each, so that if COVID-19 requires another closure, it won’t be quite as disruptive.

Using what it calls “the 2+2 semester format” offers more flexibility, the college said in a Monday message to new students from the co-chairs of its fall planning team, politics professor Senem Aslan and Josh McIntosh, the dean of students and vice president for campus life.

The change will also make it easier to limit the exposure for professors, students and staff since there will be fewer classes each week. It will also relieve pressure on classroom space to make social distancing easier, the college said.

Bates College has announced plans to reopen to students in the fall. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

There will also be many changes to try to keep the potentially deadly virus from spreading on campus, from dining hall operations to social distancing in the library, Spencer said.

“Our preparations for reopening the campus focus on best practices related to public health,” the college told students. “Our strong, collaborative relationship with Central Maine Medical Center, the expertise of the Bates faculty, and input from experts and others within the broader Bates community have all been invaluable in planning for the fall semester.”

“Through these close partnerships, we continue to engage with epidemiologists, virologists, the Maine CDC and other leading public health experts to make decisions that are grounded in both evidence and science,” Bates told students.

The college intends later in the month to lay out in detail what it intends to do, but Spencer admitted, “I’ve basically just leaked the whole thing.”

She said most colleges, including Bates’ peers in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, are planning much the same approach for the fall semester.

“It will be safe,” Spencer said, “if we turn ourselves inside out.”

She said college officials have spent “a great deal of time” on the issues involved, including a key one: whether there will be enough testing capacity to make the environment safe enough for students, teachers and staff.

“We’ve gotten very encouraging advice,” Spencer said.

What’s necessary, she said, is having the ability to isolate anyone who comes down with COVID-19 so that the disease can’t spread. That, of course, requires the capacity to tell when someone is sick.

Spencer said wearing masks is one critical way to block the coronavirus.

“Masking is turning out to be very effective,” she said.

Vivian Snyder, a custodial supervisor, enters Dana Chemistry Hall at Bates College in Lewiston on Monday morning. Snyder said her department has been following guidelines. “It’s going very, well.” Bates College is planning to reopen in the fall with social distance and masking requirements. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The faculty has given its blessing to the shift in how courses are taken, which is a major step in a tradition-bound institution.

Basically, students will wind up having four short semesters instead of two longer ones. Each of the sessions will have students generally taking two courses rather than the four at once they typically handle.

At the Commons dining hall, where students eat, there will be assigned times for meals each day so students mix with the same people there each time. Plus, there will be more grab-and-go meals rather than relying almost entirely on cafeteria-style dining, Spencer said.

The college is also ramping up its cleaning procedures to try to keep the virus at bay.

More attention to social distancing is also a necessity, Spencer said.

“It’s just going to be done with masks and lot of hand sanitizer,” Spencer joked during an online speech Saturday as part of Bates’ annual reunion weekend.

Spencer did not mention anything about the college’s fall sports programs, but several officials have said that events that require close, repeated contact are unlikely to pass muster. That leaves open the possibility that some sports may be possible.

Taken together, Spencer’s outline of what’s going to happen amounts to an enormous number of changes in a short time for the tradition-bound college founded in 1855.

“It’s all a lot of blocking and tackling,” Spencer said.

Plans call for classes to begin Sept. 2, following a “a schedule of phased return to campus” that seeks to minimize the arrival crunch that might pose a public health problem, the letter to students said. It told families to “remain flexible” about when students should come.

“Living and learning in a residential community while engaging in academic and co-curricular activities is at the core of Bates’ immersive learning model,” Aslan and McIntosh wrote to students. “Through this experience, students are in community with each other, the Bates faculty, and the Bates staff, learning via self-reflection, friendship and mentorship. As such, we continue to do all that we can to create the conditions that would enable you to begin your Bates experience in person in the fall.”

There has been no firm word yet on what Colby and Bowdoin colleges, Bates’ NESCAC peers in Maine, are going to do, but Spencer indicated that Bates’ approach is similar to what others also expect to do.

The college president said the financial implications are also noteworthy but still uncertain.

Spencer said one hurdle is that 8% of Bates’ students come from other countries. Most of them won’t be able to get visas, she said, and may well have to study remotely, probably with discounted tuition charges.

That means fewer students on campus and less revenue for a college that gets 75% of its operating money from tuition.

Spencer said there is also concern about how many first-year students may opt for gap years to try to avoid the COVID-19 issues and the possibility that some students who have been around may decide to do something else rather than return to a more restrictive environment in Lewiston than they’ve had in the past.

Still, she said, “I’m very optimistic we’ll come out the other end” of the crisis “and keep chugging away.”

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