The campus at Bowdoin College in Brunswick was quiet Monday, the day the college announced its plan to continue online learning and keep most of its students off campus in the fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nearly all classes offered by Bowdoin College this fall will be taught online and about two-thirds of the students will remain off campus for the semester, the college announced Monday.

The liberal arts college in Brunswick released its plan for the fall semester in a letter from President Clayton Rose to students, faculty and staff Monday morning.

About one-third of the student population is expected to be on campus this fall, including new first-year and transfer students, as well as select groups such as residential life staff and a small number of honors students who cannot complete pre-approved projects off campus. All other sophomores, juniors and seniors will remain off campus for the fall and take their classes online. The school also has canceled varsity athletics for the fall semester.

Bowdoin’s semester is scheduled to start Sept. 2, with almost all classes, including those for students on campus, being taught online with the exception of many first-year writing seminars.

Tuition will remain unchanged at $27,911 for the semester. The college enrolls about 1,800 students, 90 percent of whom are from out of state.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Rose said the decision was based on a desire to protect the health and safety of faculty, staff, students and the larger community, as well as to provide the most high-quality education possible to students.

In considering various return-to-campus models, Rose said it made the most sense to dedicate resources to – and ask faculty to commit to – a single mode of learning rather than attempting to do a hybrid of online and in-person teaching.

“I also know how disappointed sophomores, juniors and seniors and their parents are,” Rose said. “But my expectation and hope is if it goes as I believe it will I believe they will be on campus in the spring term and we can resume athletics.”

If the fall semester goes well, Rose said upperclassmen could return to campus for the spring while first year and transfer students would be expected to study remotely in the spring.

The Bowdoin College campus was virtually empty in March, and now the college plans to keep most students off campus in the fall. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

Colleges and universities around the country are in the midst of releasing return-to-campus plans for the fall following coronavirus-related shutdowns this spring. Some such as the Cal State system, one of the largest public university systems in the country, have announced plans to forgo most in-person classes for the fall.

More common are schedule adjustments, hybrid learning options or plans to bring back only a portion of the student population. Bowdoin’s plan appears to be the most cautious among Maine colleges and universities so far.

Students reacted to the news Monday with surprise and disappointment, though some said they understand the decision and feel it will help keep the community safe.

“My initial reaction was definitely surprised,” said Anneka Williams, a rising senior from Vermont. “It’s something I hadn’t wrapped my head around as actually happening. But I think in some ways – I don’t think relief is the right word – but I think it would be weird to go back and have it be really different from the Bowdoin I’ve known the last three years.”

Steven Xu, a rising junior from Dallas described the reaction from students as “shell-shocked,” as some had been expecting Bowdoin’s plans to fall more in-line with other liberal arts colleges such as Bates College in Lewiston, which announced plans last week to bring students back but with a different structure to the semester.

Waterville’s Colby College, which like Bates and Bowdoin is a small liberal arts school in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, has not yet announced detailed plans for the fall, but said last week that students will likely return for in-person classes earlier than scheduled and complete the semester by Thanksgiving.

“I’m sure (Rose) will get a lot of backfire for this, but knowing the people who made the decision I can see how they would prioritize the health and safety over the potential of students coming back,” Xu said. “If you have all 2,000 kids back and something does go wrong, there’s not really a safety net that can catch it.”

The decision has implications for academics, housing and dining, extracurricular activities and the student experience. It also comes amid a “substantial budget deficit” driven by the costs of managing COVID-19 and the potential for enrollment to be lower this fall. Rose said he could not yet provide numbers associated with the budget deficit, but will be updating the campus community this fall.

In the meantime, the college will not furlough workers but will take cost-cutting measures, including a decision to cut Rose’s salary by more than 20 percent starting April 1 and the salaries of other senior officers by 10 percent.

Over the past six weeks, a teaching and learning group has been working to learn from the emergency plans enacted this spring, Rose said, with the goal of developing tools and resources for faculty to use to improve online learning in the fall.

Bowdoin does not have a faculty Senate or union representing faculty.

Ann Kibbie, a professor of English and the president of the college’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a group dedicated to academic professionals and advancing academic freedom, said while she has not yet spoken with colleagues about the plans for the fall, she personally supports Rose’s decision.

“I wholeheartedly endorse the priorities that he articulates in his statement,” Kibbie said in an email. “The avoidance of staff furloughs demonstrates the sense of community that is so essential to the College.”

Some students, meanwhile, are approaching the continuation of online learning with skepticism. Garrison Asper, a rising junior majoring in biochemistry and environmental studies, said he is considering deferring for the semester.

“It seems kind of ridiculous I’m expected to have about two full semesters of online learning in a very hands-on focused lab major,” Asper said. “It’s a bummer, for sure.”

Though Asper stayed in Brunswick for the summer, he isn’t sure what he will do in the fall – either go home to Salt Lake City to continue the remote internship he is doing with an environmental group or find a way to stay in Brunswick with friends.

“It seems like a lot of people don’t want to defer and they would rather try to live with other students and do their online classes in the presence of other students,” Asper said.

“I think especially for upperclassmen who already have off-campus housing secured, they want to keep that off-campus housing and be in Brunswick and finish up their classes.”

Those on campus will be required to follow critical safety practices, including wearing face coverings, physical distancing, good and regular hygiene, and self-monitoring for symptoms. Beginning in late August, the college will require everyone on campus to be tested for COVID-19 at least twice per week with tests provided by the college.

The plans announced Monday follow a report by a Return to Campus Group that outlined various scenarios for the fall and some of the complications posed by trying to bring all students back in-person.

In particular, the report highlighted that a return of all students would stress the capacity of on-campus housing, likely forcing triples that would not be ideal for physical distancing, and would require reduced classroom capacities, making it impossible for all students to take all classes in-person.

Aine Lawlor, a rising senior on the soccer team, said while the college’s plans are disappointing, she and other students Monday were coming to view the decision as probably in the best interest of the health and safety of the community.

Hopefully the plan will mean the college won’t have to shut down suddenly in the middle of the semester, as so many campuses did last spring, she said.

An English and government major, Lawlor said she has worked hard for three years to develop close relationships with professors and looks forward to interactive discussion-based classes. Being at home in Helena, Montana, feels isolating and she is planning to live in off-campus housing in Brunswick this fall.

“Thinking about Bowdoin and what a remote semester means there are so many factors: academics, extracurriculars, sports and friends,” Lawlor said. “Those are three separate categories that people weigh differently. For me personally being around the people I love from Bowdoin is pretty important to me and feels really important knowing I only have one year left.”

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