Saint Joseph’s College in Standish said Sunday night it has decided to send all of its students home after the private, Catholic, liberal arts college experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The phased exodus of about 800 students from campus living to their homes will begin Monday and will continue through the end of the week, according an announcement issued to the campus community. An outbreak of coronavirus cases has grown from three positive cases last week to a total of 12 students who have tested positive in the past week.

“COVID-19 doesn’t care if most of us have agreed to be safe. It looks for openings, and it has now found some here on campus,” the college said in a statement. “A handful of students have decided not to keep the commitment to our community through their own personal choices. The actions of some are affecting the conclusion of the semester for all.”

College officials said Sunday that the school would begin transitioning this week to an off-campus, remote learning system that will remain in place for the rest of the semester, which ends Dec. 10. Saint Joseph’s hopes to return to in-person learning by the time the next semester starts Jan. 18.

While the college has tried to keep the coronavirus at bay, it admits the surge in COVID-19 cases may have been triggered by students attending large gatherings, not adhering to social distancing guidelines, and refusing to wear masks in public settings.

“As we’ve seen across the country and around the world, maintaining the vigilance to contain this virus is really difficult. That’s especially true for students experiencing newfound freedom in a college environment,” the college said. “The vast majority of our students have held ‘Monk Strong’ and followed the rules, and we are so proud of them.”

The Monk Strong Community Pledge was a set of guidelines to keep others safe that students agreed to follow when the fall semester began.

“Others have recently made the choice to have larger gatherings, let mask wearing slip, ignore quarantine rules and other issues,” the college said. “Unfortunately, that now hinders our ability to safely continue in-class learning and campus living. We hope that when we bring students back to Saint Joe’s on Jan. 18 we can use this moment for renewed education about community and health, which is why we are here.”

Saint Joseph’s said its exit plan will require that all students be tested for COVID-19 before they can leave campus, a measure aimed at preventing the spread of the highly contagious virus. Exit testing will be done in phases based on which dormitory a student lives in. Testing will begin Monday and end on Thursday. The final group of students will be cleared to leave campus on Friday.

All students who test negative will be asked to leave the campus immediately. If a student tests positive, the college will notify the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Commuter students can choose to have a COVID-19 test at the Health and Wellness Center, but will not be able to return to campus.

Any students who leave campus before getting a test could have their ability to return to campus for spring semester compromised.

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