Tracy Williams of Cumberland hands her son, Jackson, an armful of clothes Tuesday morning as they unpack their vehicle on Frye Street in Lewiston. Jackson, a sophomore at Bates College, said he is excited to be back at school and to reconnect with the classmates and professors who will be on campus. He plays lacrosse for the Bobcats and is eager to socialize again with his peers, even if at a distance and with all the restrictions and limitations in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — As students return to Bates College this week, college officials are looking into reports of large, loud, off-campus gatherings last weekend that were hosted and attended by Bates students, in violation of college rules aimed at stifling the spread of COVID-19.

At least two Bates officials — Athletic Director Jason Fein and Carl Steidel, senior associate dean of students — have written in recent days that some students might not be adhering to mandatory rules for behavior and distancing.

This alleged behavior comes despite a warning from Josh McIntosh, dean of students, that “one of the surest ways to force the college to close down is by hosting or attending parties or other social gatherings where public health practices are not followed.”

Bates students began arriving in large numbers Tuesday, and the concern that some will violate pandemic protocols is being taken seriously by school authorities. Violators face possible suspension.

Whatever the college may have heard, the Lewiston Police Department had not seen anything it considers a problem, according to Lt. David St. Pierre.

He said Tuesday the department had looked into at least one report last week that proved to be nothing more than a couple of students loudly exclaiming their joy in seeing each other after a long time apart. He said there have not been disturbances worth worrying about.

However, student gatherings could break college rules without violating any laws.

“We’re not the hug police,” St. Pierre said.

Steidel wrote to off-campus students and their parents Tuesday to remind them of the necessity in following the health agreement they signed that requires social distancing and prohibits all but small groups of students from gathering indoors.

Steidel said he “received reports from a number of neighbors regarding loud student gatherings at off-campus houses that seemed to involve more than just the residents of a particular house.”

In one case, he was told that as many as 20 students attended a gathering, with their arrival announced by a bullhorn.

“Without prejudging the truth of what may have happened or what has been reported, I do want to remind you that, given the coronavirus pandemic, our neighbors are understandably watching closely to see whether students living off-campus will abide by the public health practices that will protect against the spread of the virus in our surrounding neighborhoods,” Steidel wrote in his email. “First impressions are important, so I suggest that you be especially mindful of your neighbors as you settle in for the fall.”

Fein wrote last week he had received a “heads up that there may or may not be student-athletes that have already returned to Lewiston and who are living off-campus, that have already had some ‘social gatherings/parties.’”

“I have no corroboration to back this up,” Fein wrote, “but I would suggest to those of us that know we already have students back in town, that we check in on them and be sure to drive home the points regarding following the rules/regulations/guidelines/suggestions around best practices during this time.

“On campus or off, their decisions will impact whether or not we can fulfill our primary mission of keeping students safe, as well as whether we can keep campus open or closed, and even whether we keep all of us at Bates employed.”

Most of Bates’ 1,800 students are living on campus, but a fraction of them live off campus, where the college could have more trouble enforcing its pandemic-related rules requiring masks and other measures to combat the deadly virus.

As of midday Tuesday, 94 Bates students had received test results for COVID-19. None tested positive, a welcome sign.

The college closed its in-person classes in March after the coronavirus pandemic hit. Officials hope to complete the semester with courses on a campus that will be unusually locked down.

Steidel said if there are police reports about weekend violations of the college rules, “we will have no choice but to investigate and refer students to the student conduct process, as appropriate.”

“I realize that these actions and reports may be representative of only a small number of you,” Steidel wrote in his email. “But here’s the rub. A pandemic is quintessentially a situation in which individual choices affect the common good, and as our Student Public Health Agreement makes clear, if these are in conflict, you have to prioritize the common good.

“Poor choices by individual students or small groups could affect not only your own ability to continue at Bates for the semester, but the ability of all students to do so. More fundamentally, it could also affect the health and safety of our campus and local communities. I know that you understand that we simply cannot allow this to happen.”

Students who host gatherings of more than 10 people will likely wind up suspended, he warned.

“Please do not risk your health and the well-being of others and put the college in the position of doing something we do not wish for any student,” Steidel wrote. “We realize these measures can feel awkward and restrictive, and we’re all getting pretty tired of the COVID life at this point. But we will not be able to keep Bates open for on-campus study unless we all dig deep, and resist the temptation to act in ways that were routine pre-COVID, but have now become self-interested, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

“Please be the best selves that I know you can be.”

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