A view through the Class of 1927 gate of the Commons dining hall on a quiet summer day at Bates College. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Several dozen Bates College faculty members are among the more than 260 people to sign a petition this week calling on the school to hit the brakes on plans to bring all of its students back next month.

“Although we want nothing more than a return to Bates’s residential living/learning community, and deeply empathize with students’ desire to return, the unprecedented and still-worsening public health crisis, in our view, makes a full-scale in-person reopening of campus unwise,” the online petition said.

“By Bates’ own admission, coming back to campus poses a risk of serious injury or death,” said the petition started by a group of Bates faculty and staff operating on social media under the name Bates Solidarity.

Bates Solidarity is “a group of mostly tenure-ineligible faculty and staff” that operates anonymously because of “fear of reprisals.”

Its petition included 192 named signers late Wednesday afternoon, including at least 80 Bates students, 35 faculty members and 64 alumni. Seventy-two signers chose to remain unidentified.

Bates said it is aware of the petition but has not formally received it. When the document is submitted, the college said, it will respond.

A handful of members of Bates Solidarity spoke to the Sun Journal on Wednesday to provide background on their position. They said they thought of the petition as a statement to the community and did not plan to send it formally to the college administration.

They said they are worried about the safety of the Bates workers most at risk: custodians, food service workers and others who will come in direct contact with many others if most students return. They said they want the college to ensure its lowest paid employees are given full reimbursement for any healthcare costs and provided with both life insurance and long-term disability insurance.

After closing its campus in March when COVID-19 began spreading widely, Bates plans to open for the fall semester with many restrictions aimed at fending off the disease.

Critics who signed the public petition said they “believe that the decision to significantly increase the on-campus population by bringing all students back, particularly over such a short time frame, is unreasonably optimistic about our capacity to avoid an outbreak, and puts an unfair (and unequal) burden of risk onto individual members of the Bates community.”

Though Maine has among the best records in America in containing COVID-19, the coronavirus is still spreading out-of-control in many parts of the country. There is no vaccine or cure for the disease.

Bates’ plans include mandatory face masks, social distancing, restrictions on travel and more in the hope of keeping Bates’ students, faculty and staff safe. They’re similar to what most of its peers in the New England Small College Athletic Conference are doing.

The back of the 20-year-old Pettengill Hall at Bates College in Lewiston. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

But some wonder if it’s possible to slog safely through a semester in Lewiston given the difficulty of controlling the spread of the disease.

The petition claims it is “highly probable that campus outbreaks or a broader resurgence of the virus would force Bates to go remote again, partway through the fall, which would be both enormously expensive and disruptive.”

Bates’ plan includes the possibility it might have to send students home again, with 24 hours’ notice for those who live within driving distance and 48 hours for everyone to get off campus.

Bates Solidarity members said they are concerned that the college is too focused on what senior officials perceive as its financial needs.

Their petition said the most troubling part of the college’s plan is its “insidious implication that we must choose between our own health and safety and the college’s fiscal solvency in the name of ‘shared sacrifice’.”

“We reject this false choice on a multitude of ethical and practical grounds,” the petition said. “For a ‘people-driven’ institution such as ours, the health and safety of its members underlie its very existence.”

Bates is hardly alone in facing uncertainty and hesitation as the fall semester approaches.

Taking note of the rapid pace of the pandemic’s spread, USA Today reported Wednesday that “after planning ways to reopen campuses this fall, colleges are increasingly changing their minds, dramatically increasing online offerings or canceling in-person classes outright.”

A New York Times survey of American colleges Wednesday found that COVID-19 is a problem for many of them.

Though the story says particulars may be hard to nail down, “what is clear is that despite months of planning for a safe return to class, and despite drastic changes to campus life, the virus is already spreading widely at universities.”

The Bates petition said the college’s own reopening plan, announced on June 30, was built on the idea that the pandemic “would be managed” by August, something that clearly has not happened.

As a consequence, the petition said, Bates should begin its reopening with only a fraction of students invited back instead of all of them, creating “a lower campus density” and ensuring testing capacity.

They pointed to the decision by Bowdoin College in Brunswick to bring only its freshman class to campus this fall as a safer alternative to the course chosen by Bates.

A smaller group of students back on campus, the petition said, would “give us the ability to observe and learn about the challenges of campus living in a controlled manner.”

If the situation on campus and in the country work out, the petition said, Bates could “make a more informed and safer decision” about whether to have more students return for the second half of the fall semester.

As part of its effort to cope with COVID-19, Bates changed its traditional two semesters with four courses each into four mini-semesters with two classes apiece instead, providing more options for administrators.

Bates Solidarity members said they hope the petition will cause college administrators to review their plan, weigh its risks more accurately, take steps to protect the most vulnerable employees and make changes to better reflect the reality of the pandemic.

Students are slated to begin arriving in a month.

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