Hathorn Hall at Bates College in Lewiston is surrounded by a blanket of snow Monday. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Faculty at Bates College voted Monday on a plan presented by college administrators to delay the start of the next semester by more than a month.

Instead of kicking off the winter semester in early January as usual, the college plans to begin classes Feb. 17 and to eliminate its traditional short-term course in May.

The decision to push back the semester’s start by five weeks was spurred by a desire to minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19 during a wintry period when students would find it especially hard to spend time outside.

Bates President Clayton Spencer said in a letter to students late Monday that “based on the course of the pandemic nationally and in Maine, and consultation with experts, we have concluded that it is not prudent to bring students back to campus, as planned, in early January.”

“Our students would be traveling at or near the height of the current surge in cases, potentially creating health risks for these students and significant challenges for the college and student well-being once they arrive on campus,” she said.

“Given the rate of community spread in many areas of the country, we could anticipate having a number of positive COVID-19 cases during arrival testing in January,” she said. “If that were to occur, our isolation and quarantine resources might well be taxed to capacity, forcing us into fully remote instruction for at least some weeks and undermining the logic of an in-person return to campus.”

Chairs at Bates College are covered in snow Monday. It will be more than two months before students return to the Lewiston campus for the next semester. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Spencer said “trends in infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths have worsened steadily over the past six weeks, nationally and in Maine, and they are likely to intensify over the holiday season as people travel and families gather indoors.”

She pointed out that the numbers of cases in Maine has climbed sharply since early November, a period when Bates students began testing positive at a much faster clip than earlier in the semester.

Bates managed to get through its fall semester without changing its timing much, though it did send students home at Thanksgiving to finish their coursework and finals remotely. It also adopted a different schedule by having students take two courses at a time for half a semester instead of spreading four of them across the entire period.

The college saw 24 cases of COVID-19 among its students during the semester, with numbers ramping up in November. Four staff members also came down with the disease this fall. Two others had it last spring.

Bates closed its campus in March, canceled commencement and wiped out all of its summer programs to try to keep students and staff safe.

“Protecting the health and safety of our community has been, and remains, our No. 1 priority,” Spencer said.

Experts advised the college that the COVID-19 outlook “is expected to be meaningfully better by early to mid-February, with an improving trajectory as we head into the warmer months of spring.”

Clayton Spencer Bates College

“Delaying the return of students to campus until February moves us farther away from the height of the second wave of COVID-19 infections and from the worst period of the annual cold and influenza seasons,” Spencer said.

“This revised schedule will also remove from our academic calendar one of the coldest and darkest months of the year, addressing a primary student concern about the quality of life on campus during winter in the pandemic,” she said.

As a consequence, officials said, it made more sense to ax the short term in May than risk having students come in January.

A longer winter break “gets us beyond the worst of the current COVID-19 spike,” Spencer said.

“In short, our chosen approach optimizes the chances of our being able to offer the entire second semester as an in-person living and learning experience,” she said.

Spencer said she recognizes the changes will “directly impact the plans and expectations of students and families, and I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience or disappointment they may cause. “

“I regret that we find ourselves, once again, with a need to appeal to everyone’s flexibility and good will to adapt to a new set of challenges presented by COVID-19,” she said.

“With the recent good news about vaccines and the prospect of a coordinated national strategy for pandemic response, however, I very much hope that the worst will soon be behind us,” Spencer said.

“When we reconvene in February, the winter and spring will be a journey toward warmth and light, and hopefully a much brighter outlook for the coming summer and next fall.”

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