The Bowdoin College campus was empty in March, after students, who were on spring break, were told they would not be returning to campus. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — More than 1,000 Bowdoin College sophomore, juniors and seniors will return to campus in February 2021 for the first time since classes moved online in March, college officials announced Monday. 

First-year students, who were allowed on campus for the fall semester, will return home. There are exceptions for first-year international students and those “for whom home is not a place where they can learn.” 

College officials said from the outset that they would prioritize bringing seniors back for the spring semester, and in a letter to the campus community, Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose said that thanks to the school’s safety protocols and rigorous COVID-19 testing program, this will be possible. 

This new semester will nearly double the number of students on campus, with between 1,100 and 1,200 (or roughly 67% of the school’s enrollment) returning in the spring, college spokesperson Doug Cook said in an email Tuesday. 

The spring semester starts Feb. 8, two weeks later than normal to get through more of the flu season before starting up, he said. A flu vaccine is required before returning to campus.

Through its partnership with the Broad Institute, Bowdoin College has performed 16,897 coronavirus tests as of Wednesday, with only four positive cases. 

All four, three students and one staff member, have since recovered.

The three positive students are thought to have contracted the virus while on their way to campus

“Of course, all of this has taken place during a time when we can be outside,” Rose said. “As the weather in Maine and elsewhere around the country turns colder, we will have to remain vigilant and will have to continue to observe strict protocols, including decreased density on campus, frequent testing and isolation of those who test positive before they can spread the virus, quarantining those identified as at risk in contract tracing, and strict adherence to the use of face coverings, physical distancing, proper hygiene, and limits to the size of gatherings.”

The same testing protocol from the fall, in which students are tested immediately upon arrival, followed by three times per week for the first few weeks and twice weekly for the remainder of the semester, will apply in the spring as well. 

The college will order 70,000 tests for the spring, double what it ordered in the fall, Cook said. 

Testing and contact tracing for the fall is expected to cost roughly $3 million, and testing costs for the spring have yet to be determined.

Classes will continue to be offered primarily online, but Rose said faculty will have the opportunity to offer in-person classes, which they expect will be popular for upper-level and laboratory courses.

This semester’s freshman writing seminars have primarily been held outside, but according to Cook, “It is unlikely that in-person classes can be held outdoors until much later in the spring semester.”

As a result: “We have conducted engineering studies of our indoor spaces to set the appropriate capacity and to make sure we have proper ventilation in these spaces. We will only use spaces that meet these standards,” Cook said.

Most required senior seminars will be online to ensure that all students have access to the classes they need to graduate. 

Seniors will also have the option to live off-campus in Brunswick and still remain “in residence” at the college, meaning they can still take in-person classes and have access to college facilities, but will still be subject to the testing policy. 

Nina McKay, a senior and co-editor of Bowdoin’s student newspaper, The Orient, said in a phone interview Tuesday that students were surprised to hear about the school’s plans so early, but that students who aren’t on campus, especially upperclassmen who, by and large, had a hard time with the summer’s announcement that most students would not be returning in the fall, are relieved to be going back, she said. 

According to Cook, college officials announced the preliminary plan early “to give students and their families as much notice as possible for their planning purposes amid this already unusual academic year. We also wanted to give faculty as much time as possible to prepare their courses and course materials for the spring,” he added.

For her part, McKay was abroad for the first part of the spring last year, so she has not been back on campus since early December. She is looking forward to being back, she said, but recognizes that nobody knows what will happen in the winter. 

If plans do change, which college officials said is possible, McKay said she expects it will be handled differently than in March “when we didn’t know how things would go.”

Now, with testing, quarantine and online learning protocols already in place there is a “stronger pice of experiential evident to fall back on,” she said, adding that she thinks there would have to be a “pretty drastic reversal” in COVID-19 cases for the college to change course. 

Kate Lusignan, senior and co-editor, agreed that students were surprised by the early announcement, but seem both excited and cautiously optimistic. 

There was a learning curve, but everything has been a collective effort, with the few cases caught, traced and isolated almost immediately. 

“I think that does give nice security for students returning to campus and for the Brunswick community,” she said. 

Commencement for the class of 2021 is slated for May 29 and a separate celebration for the class of 2020, whose ceremony was postponed, is scheduled for June 11 and 12. 

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