Parker Hall, the oldest dorm at Bates College, has housed students since the 1850s. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — As Bates College tries to figure out where to put its students safely in the midst of a pandemic, it is eyeing the possibility of more off-campus housing, perhaps including local hotels.

The college told students recently it is “working quickly to add to our existing housing resources to try to be able to provide a place for everyone” to stay.

It’s just one of many issues that Bates is struggling to figure out as the fall semester rapidly approaches, from how many classes will be offered only online to how to get students to keep their distance from one another in the age of COVID-19.

For administrators at Bates, as well as their peers Colby College in Waterville and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, there are issues large and small to address as time begins to run out and plans either become a reality or fall by the wayside.

At Bates, even some of the most basic questions remain up in the air, like how many of its 1,800 students are going to show up at its Lewiston campus starting in about a month.

“It is too soon to know the final number of students who will be on campus this fall and therefore we have not made final decisions on housing,” said Mary Pols, a spokesperson for Bates.

“We need to make sure we can house our new and returning students,” she said, “while also setting aside a sufficient number of beds on campus for any health concerns that may arise” should students get sick from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Without knowing who’s coming, it’s impossible for Bates to say whether it will need to find hotel accommodations for them.

“We have been consulting with students to get a sense of what they might be interested in, including potentially living off-campus,” the college told students on its website. Hotel rooms are a possibility, it added.

Since there are no hotels within easy walking distance of the college, the prospect of using them adds a new layer of complexity for a small college that has long had dormitory space for nearly all of its students.

“Our planning process includes ensuring access to transportation to campus, residence life staff support, laundry and other typical student services for those who could be placed in a hotel,” Bates said in response to frequently asked questions about its housing.

Facing similar issues, Colby already announced it will open its own, newly constructed Lockwood Hotel on Main Street” as a student residence for this year only and expand transportation” to make it accessible for its students.

Bowdoin College in Brunswick doesn’t have the same housing space crunch because it is only bringing first-year and new transfer students to its campus this fall, along with a smattering of special cases among sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Bates has more than 30 buildings it uses for student housing, including a number of dormitories that range from Parker Hall, its first, to ones on Campus Avenue that are only a few years old.

The problem is that officials want to reduce housing density as much as they can to keep from having too many people in close quarters, a situation that makes spreading the virus easier.

Even so, Pols said the college will have rooms that are shared by students. It’s not possible to put everybody in a single room, officials said.

HOW BATES INTENDS TO COPE

Finding spots for everyone is only one of many complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic that have colleges and universities across the country scrambling to figure out how they can offer a top-notch education with enough of the social perks to keep their student body content.

Some say it’s impossible.

More than 200 professors at Appalachian State University in North Carolina recently wrote that “it is dishonest to pretend that the in-person experience offered this fall will approximate a typical semester. Limited classroom instruction will take place from behind a mask or barrier. Social distancing will hamper the informal interactions that foster a free flow of ideas. Many students will complete online coursework in a double occupancy dorm room, donning a face mask just to walk down the hall.”

But others hope for the best.

A hallway in one of the newer dorms at Bates College in Lewiston. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Like many colleges, including most of its competitors in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, Bates plans to have a mix of remote and in-person classes this fall, with all of its students coming back if they can get to Maine and feel secure enough to return. Some, especially foreign students, may not be able to travel.

The college is trying to figure out how to help keep everyone healthy when classes resume, including upgrading ventilation systems, adding Plexiglas barriers and taking a host of measures to encourage physical distancing. Masks will be required for all.

To minimize the risk of somebody transmitting the disease, the college is paying particular attention to how it houses students.

Student housing is inherently high-density, with prolonged exposure to other people in fairly close quarters.

As a first step, Bates said it is only going to allow students to have access to their own building, the residence where they are assigned to live. They cannot enter other dorms or houses, the college said.

To keep students from congregating within buildings, it is closing all its residential kitchens for the fall semester as well because they are “a high-risk environment.”

No off-campus guests will be allowed inside, including parents, except in compelling circumstances.

TESTING

Testing everybody is part of the plan even though the Centers for Disease Control calls its benefit unknown.

Students will be tested on arrival for COVID-19 and then get tested twice a week for as long as there’s a need. Colby, which is in the same conference as Bates, has similar plans, though it intends to test everybody three times weekly early in the semester.

Students testing will be carried out through the Clinical Research Sequencing Platform at the Massachusetts-based Broad Institute, a genomics firm created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004, the same lab Colby intends to use.

The Broad Institute began doing COVID-19 testing in March and has been ramping up its capacity ever since. In mid-July, it could handle several thousand tests daily, mostly from Massachusetts.

When students arrive on campus in late August, they’ll be required to quarantine in their rooms until test results come back showing whether they have the disease. Bates said it anticipates results within 48 hours.

CLAMPDOWN

In a bid to make sure any COVID-19 that comes to campus doesn’t spread quickly, students won’t have the ability to roam through the entire campus as usual.

Entering only their own dorm would obviously crimp social life.

Among the changes this fall will be a prohibition on large gatherings, canceled sports seasons and scheduled cafeteria access, which has traditionally been wide open most hours of the day.

The public health agreement every student must sign lays out just how different life will be on campus, with requirements that everyone wear face coverings in any common space or when others are around. They’re mandated as well to stay at least 6 feet apart in all possible settings.

The pact says students can’t have visitors, can’t enter housing they don’t live in, can’t leave Maine and can’t gather in informal groups of more than 10 anywhere.

Despite the many rules, Bates told students they “will still be able to connect broadly with friends across campus, while wearing a face covering and observing physical distancing guidelines.”

They won’t have any choice about complying with testing mandates and any other public health directives.

Violating the rules will be treated harshly.

“We anticipate that all students wish to do their part to keep our campus safe, students who choose to put the health and well-being of their peers and the faculty and staff of the college at risk by not adhering to these policies will be referred to the student conduct system,” the agreement said.

“The college takes seriously its responsibility to our own community and to the wider world. As such, the college cannot tolerate violations of these policies,” it said.

Bates said a first violation “will likely result in a referral to the student conduct process where the likely outcome will be an immediate removal from campus housing, removing access to campus facilities and a requirement that the student return to their home residence to continue the semester via remote learning, if the courses for which they are enrolled can be completed remotely.”

Further violations are likely to lead to suspensions of at least a semester, the college said.

“Egregious or intentional violations” will likely lead to an immediate suspension, the agreement students must accept states. Examples include “hosting a gathering or party of more than 10 individuals at your on- or off-campus residence and not following directives regarding quarantining or isolating when required to do so.”

“Hosts are defined as those students assigned to the room or suite if in on-campus housing and tenants for off-campus residences who were present for the party or gathering in question,” the college said.

Colby’s rules are much the same.

It said its students, faculty, and staff must commit “to a revised set of expectations. Every member of the community is responsible for adhering to a social compact to be part of this community.”

“This will include committing to personal safety measures (especially facial coverings), prohibitions in the travel and visitor policy, complying with testing, and committing to health self-checks,” Colby said. “Failure to comply will result in disciplinary action, including suspension.”

BUILDING REVISIONS

Bates said its facilities staff is working to modify health, ventilation and air conditioning systems if they can be upgraded to improve air filtering. The goal is to increase both outside air intake and greater air circulation, the college said.

About 70% of the college’s buildings have some type of air handler, including nearly all of its classroom space. Only about one in four student rooms have top quality filtering, but many have operable windows that allow for fresh air.

ASSUMING THE RISK

One thing the college is making clear to students is that it can’t guarantee they’ll be safe.

All returning students are required to sign a pact chock full of legalese that says explicitly that “I alone have to determine the sufficiency of any precautions that I am required to take, or that I decide to take, to minimize the risks of exposure and infection.”

Before coming to campus, students must agree they have relied on their own judgment “as to whether to undertake the risks.”

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