LEWISTON — After three straight chaotic semesters, Bates College plans to operate under “business as usual” conditions, when its fall semester kicks off with nearly all of its students vaccinated.

For the first time since COVID-19’s arrival in Maine in early 2020, students will not be required to wear masks, take heed of social distancing or settle for grab-and-go food from its popular dining hall. Sports and other activities are expected to return to normal as well.

“After the many challenges of the past year, I am optimistic that our COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students will enable us to return to many, if not most, of the curricular and cocurricular experiences that are so important to the student experience at Bates,” Joshua McIntosh, vice president for campus life, told students this week.

A few restrictions will remain — including a ban on visitors in Bates’ dorms — but after a year and a half of constant testing and lots of rules, the Bates campus will seem far more like it was pre-pandemic.

The college, though, is taking steps to clamp down quickly if the need arises.

The first thing returning students must do is to head to the testing center at Underhill arena for the first of three COVID-19 tests they are mandated to have during the first couple of weeks, a measure meant to identify and contain any cases that might exist among the study body.

Even though nearly all students are required to be vaccinated, some may still test positive and potentially spread the virus among classmates and staff. At this point, Bates has not mandated that its employees be vaccinated.

The college will insist that people who are inside buildings wear masks if they have not been vaccinated. Students were also told that some vaccinated people are wearing masks too, so nobody should make assumptions on vaccination status if someone has a face covering.

Bates won’t restrict travel, but did ask students to keep out-of-state trips to a minimum.

“Many cases of COVID-19 from last academic year came from off-campus locations, and remaining on campus and in-state is a great way to support the health and safety of your peers,” McIntosh said in his note to students.

McIntosh said that Bates recognizes “that there may be moments where we call upon the collective strength of our community — a community that supports and looks out for one another — to move back to transmission mitigation strategies to keep each other safe should such actions be necessary.”

“I sincerely hope that we do not have a moment where we need to do this, but we are prepared to manage through it if such a moment comes,” he said.

Students were asked, for instance, to bring a supply of masks with them in case the college decides it needs to require them again.

Bates told students it has several priorities that it intends to work on for the coming year, including improving “the student experience on weekends, including the relationship between Campus Safety staff and students,” revitalizing its Office of Intercultural Education and doing more for student support programs.

McIntosh said the college is also aware that the last academic year was “very complicated” for first-year students to begin their time at Bates.

As a result, Bates is planning some special programs to help the Class of 2024, “in building community and connection with each other and the broader Bates community,” McIntosh said, offering everything from trips to see the Portland Sea Dogs play to a night at the Rollodrome in Auburn.

First-year students are expected to arrive on campus on Aug. 26 while returning students are due by August 31. The semester is slated to start on Sept. 1.

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