The University of Maine System announced Wednesday that it will ask students statewide not to return to campus and will transition to distance learning after next week’s spring break because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

In doing so, the system joins dozens of public and private colleges and universities across the country that have modified their schedules, moved to online learning or asked students to vacate campuses because of the viral outbreak.

Earlier Wednesday, Bowdoin College in Brunswick announced that it would transition to distance learning and ask students not to return from spring break.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the coronavirus a pandemic, which is defined as an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population. The flu-like disease has infected more than 118,000 people in 114 countries and nearly 4,300 have died since it was first detected in China in January. No cases have been confirmed to date in Maine.

The Maine schools based their decisions on the timing of spring break – which is this week and next for Bowdoin and next week for Maine state university students – and the fear that students traveling out of state could bring the virus back to Maine.

“We gave this a long period of contemplation and in light of students leaving our campus, we felt it was best to make this decision today so students could conduct themselves in the next few days in fulfillment of what we are attempting to do, which is move our educational mission to the greatest extent we can online or to other modalities and to not be part of the problem with respect to spreading the virus,” said University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy.

The decision means campuses will have to grapple with how to offer online learning, including for classes like science labs and arts not conducive to an online format; how to accommodate international students and others who can’t travel home; and the impact on financial aid and scholarships.

There also are considerations for athletics and whether teams will continue to compete amid fears of the virus and students being sent home.

In New York and New Jersey, where the virus has spread quickly, Columbia, Fordham, Hofstra, Princeton and Yeshiva universities are among the schools that have canceled classes or moved them online. The University of Washington is moving to online classes for its 50,000 students. In Boston, Harvard University has told students to move out of their dorms as soon as possible and to expect to do classwork remotely until further notice.

Officials at both Bowdoin and the state university system said the transition to online learning will be a challenge and something they are working to figure out.

Students in the University of Maine System, which has seven campuses throughout the state, have been instructed to depart campus no later than March 22, the last day of spring break. About 5,800 of the system’s 23,000 students live in residence halls.

The system will then transition to distance learning when classes resume on March 23. About 25 percent of courses currently taught in the Maine university system are online, Malloy said, and that number will “obviously need to evolve rapidly.”

He said the system is getting support from the University of Maine at Augusta, where many classes are taught online, as well as looking at how other state and private universities are making the transition.

“Each university is working on it,” Malloy said. “(Information technology) systemwide has teams of people working on this and the universities to some extent are working on it with respect to the modalities they already use. So this is a gigantic ramp-up in the name of public health.”

At Bowdoin, college officials have told students to leave campus no later than March 18, though accommodations will be made for those in extenuating circumstances, such as international or low-income students without the means to travel. The campus will remain open and staff will report to work, with no impact on their regular wages.

College President Clayton Rose said the move to online learning, which academic affairs officials are working on in conjunction with technology staff and faculty, will be a challenge. The college doesn’t currently offer any online classes.

“Bowdoin is built on a model of personal learning, small classes and in-person contact between students and faculty, and between students and students,” Rose said. “Deep collaboration is one thing that makes us very special. That said, we’re in an extraordinary situation so we’re going to pivot into this remote learning model.”

Similarly, Malloy said the Maine university system will provide housing and meal options to students who must remain on campus due to extenuating personal circumstances.

“I think it will be a challenge,” Malloy said. “I’m not sure everybody has all the equipment they need (to learn remotely). That’s another reason we’re giving notice so that over spring break we can begin to make adjustments. There will be a fair amount of communication between the university and students on an ongoing basis.”

The New England Small College Athletic Conference, which also includes Bates and Colby colleges in Maine, announced Wednesday that it is canceling all conference competition, including championships, for the spring 2020 season.

Officials at Bates told the Sun Journal Tuesday that the college is planning on finishing out the spring semester with students on campus, though plans are being made for online learning in case shutting classrooms becomes the best way to deal with the virus. Colby is monitoring the situation, and has not announced any plans to cancel classes or send students home, though there are travel restrictions in place for students and staff.

Another Maine university, the University of New England, also told its community Wednesday it has no plans to close any campuses or curtail classes for the time being.

“At the same time, the situation is highly dynamic and fluid, and we may need to take additional measures in the coming days in order to keep our community safe,” UNE President James Herbert said in a letter to the community. “Although we do not intend to modify our academic calendar or instructional delivery methods at this time, I cannot guarantee that this will not change should circumstances require it in order to protect the well being of our community.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Maine system had not made a decision about whether athletic teams would continue to compete during the spring semester. Malloy said, however, that the system will not be “punishing anybody with respect to scholarships.”

“We have no intention of affecting people’s access to financial aid or scholarships,” he said, adding that the university will look to federal guidance and will be communicating with students and parents in the coming weeks about the status of financial aid and scholarships, as well as whether the cost of room and board will be reimbursed.

Bowdoin, meanwhile, canceled all spring athletics starting Saturday. This followed an announcement Tuesday that fans will not be allowed to attend this weekend’s NCAA Division III women’s basketball sectional tournament games because of coronavirus concerns. Only essential personnel will be allowed in Morrell Gymnasium.

The college also is limiting gatherings to no more than 100 people and has canceled tours and information sessions for the remainder of the semester. The Bowdoin Museum of Art and the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum will close to the public starting Monday, though the museums will remain open to faculty for teaching and research purposes.

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maine. The state said Wednesday that 42 people have tested negative for the virus and another five are awaiting results.

Rose, the president at Bowdoin, said Wednesday it is unlikely students will be able to return to campus this spring. No decisions have been made yet on what commencement – currently scheduled for May 23 – will look like, and Rose said in a letter to the community that he is “particularly pained” for seniors.

“These last few weeks on campus were to be a remarkable, wonderful, and fun capstone to your four years at Bowdoin,” he said. “This extraordinary circumstance and necessary decision preclude the opportunity to finish out your time as students at Bowdoin in the best possible way. I am sorry that there was not another way to manage this crisis.”

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