Leaders of Maine’s public and private institutions of higher education are working together to develop “guiding principles” for the difficult decisions about when and how to reopen campuses to students.

A working group of college presidents and other leaders convened remotely Friday to continue discussing some of the issues their institutions will have to address before reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic this fall. The group plans to present a report offering a “common reopening framework” to Gov. Janet Mills and state health officials in early June.

“I think every president would prefer to be in a position to open for in-classroom learning for students that want that, and offer other modalities for students that want those. But what does that look like?” Dannel Malloy, chancellor of the University of Maine System, said Friday evening.

Malloy said the group conversation began among some leaders of Maine’s private, independent colleges but he suggested a larger conversation, given the similar challenges.

“Other states are doing similar things in different ways,” Malloy said. “But I wanted to break down the divide between the privates and the publics and do this together. And meeting students’ needs is equally important, regardless of whether you are a private or a public (institution).”

Other members of the working group include: University of Maine System chief of staff and general counsel Jim Thelen; Saint Joseph’s College President James Dlugos, who is also president of the Maine Independent Colleges Association; University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy; Maine Community College System President David Daigler; Bates College President Clayton Spencer, and University of New England Provost Joshua Hamilton.

Colleges in Maine and nationwide canceled classroom instruction and transitioned to distance or online learning earlier this spring as the novel coronavirus began spreading across the U.S. As of Friday, Maine had 1,603 confirmed or probable cases of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus and 69 deaths.

Maine has among the lowest infection rates in the country, which has factored into the Mills administration’s decision to gradually begin reopening segments of the economy. But there is high uncertainty about what the virus landscape will look like this summer – particularly as out-of-state tourists begin showing up in Maine – and whether there will be a second wave of cases this fall.

Officials in the University of Maine System are tentatively planning to welcome students back to campus this fall, but acknowledge those plans will depend on guidance from public health officials. Leaders of Maine’s private colleges and universities also hope the coronavirus pandemic will have abated by August but recognize they need to be prepared, either way.

Among the issues under consideration are: offering smaller classes, changing the structure of student housing, how to implement social distancing rules in classrooms and labs, delaying the start of fall classes or even continuing with distance learning.

“No one can say with certainty how COVID-19 will be impacting our communities and institutions come fall,” Spencer of Bates College said in a statement. “Committing as a state to a set of higher education reopening steps and alternatives will improve our planning and provide assurances that student and community health remain our foremost consideration.”

Similar higher education working groups are underway or have completed their work in other states.

In Connecticut, for instance, a higher education subcommittee recommended that colleges with residential programs only be allowed to reopen in the case of a sustained low and non-increasing rate of new hospitalizations in the state and in the community surrounding each college.

The Connecticut report also states that colleges should have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE, the capacity to adequately test students and staff and conduct “contact tracing” of individuals who may have been exposed to someone who tests positive. The report also recommends that each institution develop plans to monitor for the virus, contain it if cases are found and shut down operations, if necessary.

Malloy said 200- or 400-student lectures are obviously “problematic” for this fall. Individual institutions will each decide how to proceed based on their individual circumstances but he said the framework being prepared now will help answer the questions of how campuses could safely reopen, if they choose to do so.

Malloy, who served eight years as Connecticut’s governor before being hired as the UMaine System chancellor, said he consulted with Mills on the working group. He said he hopes the Maine group’s report will “appropriately influence” discussions between Mills and her public health experts as well as be available to answer any questions.

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