The University of Southern Maine’s plan to reopen this fall includes regular testing, more distancing, increased cleaning and sanitation and other safety measures. In this photo taken pre-pandemic last fall, students change classes on the Portland campus. Jill Brady/Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — The University of Southern Maine will reopen, but a number of conditions and precautions will make this coming semester feel unlike any other.

“With new capacity now to limit virus transmission through testing, contract tracking and isolation, along with a strong communal discipline to follow social distancing and other recognized public health measures, Maine’s public universities will resume in-person teaching and learning on our campuses this fall because classroom instruction and immersion in a diverse community of ideas remains the best model to serve the majority of our learners,” USM Chancellor Dannel P. Malloy said in a news release. “For at-risk faculty, staff and students, we’ll employ new technologies and flexible teaching and learning modalities so that all have meaningful opportunities to participate with those on campus in their teaching, work and learning.”

USM President Glenn Cummings said how classes are offered will be up to individual professors, as long as they are meeting proper Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

“We will have the option of in-person classes. We will have the option for fully online classes and we will have some hybrid models,” Cummings said.

Caroline Shanti, a professor of social work at USM, said many professors, herself included, are opting to teach their courses online due to the public health risk of congregating as a group. In the spring, Shanti said, professors were forced to switch their instruction online quickly, but this summer staff have had the opportunity, through support from the administration and the school’s Center for Technology Enhanced Learning, to take time to think about how best to offer instruction online for the fall.

“Many more of our classes will be online than ever before,” Shanti said. “The majority of faculty is looking at this as a stop gap because of the public health risk and many of us are hoping to learn effective ways to teach our students online and are looking forward to getting back in the classroom when it is safe to do so.”

Regardless of how they are offered, classes will begin Aug. 31 and will continue until Thanksgiving break on Nov. 25. The final two weeks of the semester and final exams will be offered remotely.

Before students are allowed back – in particular athletes, students staying in residence halls or from states other than Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – they will have to prove that they’ve tested negative for COVID-19. Through a partnership with Jackson  Laboratories and Convenient MD, testing will continue throughout the school year at USM and other schools in the University of Maine system.

“We know that one of our biggest community health challenges is that asymptomatic people can be transmitting the coronavirus for weeks. Our screening strategies will help us identify and isolate infection,” University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said.

As a precaution to curb the spread of the virus, the school’s reopening plan calls for large groups to be minimized, classrooms and other spaces to be arranged so students are at least 6 feet apart on the schools campuses in Gorham, Lewiston and Portland. One-way foot traffic will be required in some sections of campuses. Face coverings will be required to be worn at all times indoors except when alone in a room. Students and staff are encouraged to bring their own, but the college will provide face coverings for those who need them. Most classes will not have more than 20 students and those that do may be held outside or in larger spaces, such as Hannaford Hall.

These precautions, Cummings said, apply to the school’s three campuses in Gorham, Lewiston and Portland.

Cummings expects between 900 and 1,000 students to reside in the dorms in Gorham, but to limit exposure all triples have been eliminated. The dining halls in Gorham and Portland will be operational, but Cummings said groups of students may be staggered to eat at different times or the number of students allowed in at one time or eating at one table could be limited. Furthermore, the number of visitors to campus will be drastically reduced. Hand sanitizing stations will be scattered around USM campuses and common spaces and classrooms will be disinfected regularly.

“This will allow the USM family to reconvene,” Cummings said of the plan, “but it will be done under very safe conditions to minimize any impact of staff, students and faculty.”

Incoming student body president Hannah Qiu said while she and other students fear asymptomatic students  “will unknowingly transmit the virus to others,” her biggest concern is those students who resist the health protocols.

“The issue is that there are people who do not take the virus seriously and do not care to adhere to the mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing, and social distancing guidelines,” Qui said. “That is my biggest concern since the fall return presents more complications if students are not compliant especially when sharing communal spaces.”

Cummings said as the semester proceeds, the plan will be refined as needed, particularly in testing procedures, distancing protocols and how positive tests are handled. The plan now is to use 100 rooms in a Gorham dorm to isolate any individuals who tested positive and quarantine others who may have been exposed.

“We will have to do lots of monitoring (of our plans),” Cummings said. “This is different for everyone in higher education. We are no exception to that.”

Qui said she wants students to know the committee members who helped to come up with USM’s reopening plan are continuing to work hard “to address all the concerns returning to campus and taking every factor into consideration, also, making sure fall semester will provide a positive, engaging, and high impact student experience.”

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