University of Maine students will return to campuses across the state for the fall semester as university officials focus on screening for COVID-19 infection, Chancellor Dannel Malloy announced Wednesday.

The reopening plans for the universities rely heavily on testing and plans for isolating people who have been exposed to the coronavirus. Every student, faculty and staff member from outside Maine will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test in hand at the start of the semester on Aug. 31. All students who live in dormitories will be tested for COVID-19, regardless of where they’re from, and ongoing testing is expected throughout the semester.

Dannel P. Malloy, chancellor of the University of Maine System, said, “Staying together and staying safe means we all have to do our part.” Photo by Bob O’Connor, courtesy of UMaine

The University of Maine System on Tuesday announced it is forming partnerships with The Jackson Laboratory and ConvenientMD to conduct comprehensive testing at all seven campuses and the University of Maine School of Law. Malloy says the testing strategy is one of the key pieces that allows the system to reopen for its more than 30,000 students. The program will cost about $1 million, depending on the number of tests needed.

“Our world needs higher education now more than ever,” Malloy said in a statement. “Because our state leaders and public health authorities have kept the coronavirus from spreading unchecked, we have an opportunity to come together for Maine and our students this fall with science-informed plans to protect student health and limit the spread of infection on campus and in our communities. Staying together and staying safe means we all have to do our part. Until there is a medical breakthrough ending the pandemic, we will all have to prioritize personal health and public safety.”

Students were sent home in March and finished the last eight weeks of the spring semester remotely after the campuses were shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, university leaders have been working on plans for resuming in-person instruction that align with guidance from public health authorities.

Each university within the UMaine System has developed a reopening plan that aligns with seven unifying principles for instruction, campus life and the essential work of higher education, system officials said. Those reopening plans will continue to be adjusted and refined as needed and may vary based on transmission of the coronavirus in different areas.

University students will begin classes on Aug. 31. In-person instruction will end and residence halls close by Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. The final two weeks of the semester and final exams will be held remotely to limit travel-related spread of infection. A limited number of international students and others who do not have homes to return to may remain on campus after Nov. 25.

Nearly 1,200 fewer students are expected to live on campus this fall because of reduced capacity of dorms to accommodate physical distancing.

Malloy expects students will return for the spring semester, but that decision will be guided by civil authorities and circumstances at the time.

The announcement about the fall semester came as welcome news to students who say they miss the in-person experience.

“It was pretty much a relief knowing that I was going to be able to go back,” said Page Brown, a rising junior at the University of Maine Farmington. “This spring semester is really weird being online, and knowing we’ll be back even if it isn’t the super traditional way is really comforting.”

Testing is a key component of the reopening plan, both as people return to campus and throughout the semester. While the details of how that testing will be carried out are still being decided, Malloy said he doubts it will involve the weekly testing some other universities and colleges have announced.

“I think what we’ll be doing is testing a certain number of students on an ongoing basis so we have a feel for what’s going on,” he said. “There undoubtedly will be transmission continuing whether we’re in session or not.”

Students and employees from outside Maine need to be tested within 72 hours before arriving or through the university’s program when they arrive on campus. Those who are tested when they arrive will be required to isolate until their test results come back.

Students who are from Maine do not need to be tested before the semester begins unless they are living in campus housing. The university system also is not requiring testing for faculty and employees who live in Maine.

University officials are asking students and employees to limit travel during the semester. Students and employees who do have to leave the state will be required to adhere to public health testing or quarantine protocols when they return.

Malloy said the university system soon will begin testing sewage on campuses to gather information about the presence of the virus. A recent study found that monitoring sewage for coronavirus’ genetic material can give public health officials an early warning before COVID-19 outbreaks occur.

Students will be asked to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 and stay home if they are sick as part of a pledge to keep themselves and others safe. Students will be advised against gathering in large groups. All students, faculty and staff will be required to wear masks, which Malloy called “a no-brainer” given evidence of the efficacy of masks in limiting the spread of the virus.

Malloy believes students are aware of what’s going on around them and are willing to take those precautions.

“I don’t think anyone is coming to college and saying ‘Hey, I want to get COVID,'” he said.

The university is making modifications to campuses to improve physical distancing and limit group sizes. According to the university system, 75 percent of the system’s 772 classrooms will have 15 or fewer people. Nearly all classrooms already adhere to the state’s limit on group gatherings of 50 people, and during the fall semester 90 percent of classrooms will have fewer than 20 people in them.

At the University of Southern Maine, classes with more than 20 students will be held in tents or in non-classroom spaces like Hannaford Hall and the Field House. All academic buildings on USM’s campuses will be closed to the general public during the fall semester.

The university system anticipates having 1,179 fewer residence hall occupants this fall as capacities are lowered to allow rooms to be reserved for students who need to be moved if they test positive for COVID-19 or who need to quarantine. The universities have eliminated overflow housing such as double rooms being used as triples and lounge spaces that are converted to rooms.

Malloy hopes the universities will still be able to meet the needs of students who want to live in a dorm. At UMaine, housing is being honored for all students who applied by the May 1 guaranteed housing deadline. Remaining rooms will be assigned based on when students apply. The universities also are working with their communities to assess the availability of additional space.

“It will have an impact on our ability to raise money associated with room and board,” Malloy said of the housing reduction, noting the university will have a better idea of enrollment numbers in the next two weeks as students decide if they will return for the fall semester and live on campus.

While the campuses will have in-person instruction, students and faculty will have the option to continue entirely online if they cannot return or don’t feel comfortable returning to campus in the fall. However, not all courses will be available online. At USM, more than 75 percent of all courses are available online and through remote instruction.

“Our campuses will feel and function differently this fall from what we have experienced in the past, with fewer people working and studying in person and more work happening off-site,” USM President Glenn Cummings said.

Each university will have plans in place to allow students to continue their education during periods of mandated isolation or quarantine.

The university system did not announce plans for fall athletics on Wednesday, but those decisions are expected in the next two weeks, Malloy said. He said his inclination is to leave decisions about athletics to individual university presidents.

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, president of the University of Maine, said whether to allow fall athletics is a complicated decision that involves looking at civil guidance on the disease in Maine and other states.

“There’s lots to consider as we make those decisions,” she said.

University presidents said Wednesday that they have not heard opposition from local residents or town officials to bringing students back to campus, though Ferrini-Mundy said officials in Bangor and Orono have been in close contact about the university’s plans because many students live in off-campus housing in those communities.

“They’re very attentive to what we may be doing,” she said.

Several University of Maine students said Wednesday that they are comforted by the administration’s plans to enforce physical distancing and change campus spaces to accommodate a new college experience. But they know college won’t feel quite the same when they return to campus.

“I haven’t spoken to a UMF student yet that hasn’t been happy about this,” said Brown, the rising junior at UMF.

Max Burtis, a rising junior at the University of Maine Honors College in Orono, said he thinks it is “going to feel pretty weird on campus with the restrictions they’re going to enact.”

Other colleges in Maine are still developing strategies for reopening. Bowdoin College in Brunswick decided to switch to online learning for most returning students, though first year and transfer students will return to campus this fall. Bates College in Lewiston announced this week that it will conduct universal testing on students and staff returning to campus, with each student undergoing two rounds of testing.

Colby College in Waterville plans to administer about 85,000 tests in the fall semester as students return to campus. Students, faculty and staff will be tested three times in the opening weeks of the semester, then everyone will be tested twice per week. Unity College announced last week it will continue online learning through the 2020-21 academic year, while College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor is looking at both in-person classes and a hybrid learning model.

Undergraduates at the University of New England will follow a modified schedule this fall, returning to in-person classes in August, but with no fall holidays or breaks. In-person classes will end at Thanksgiving, students will take exams remotely and not return to campus until the spring semester starts in January.

Staff Writer Reuben Schafir contributed to this report. 

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