STANDISH — Saint Joseph’s College students will begin their phased return to campus next week and as cases of COVID-19 in Maine hit new records, school officials say they’ve made “adaptations” to their prevention protocols under this “radically different COVID environment than we were in late August.”

“We are phasing students in over a three-week period, and that’s important because we believe that the beginning of the semester is the most critical time,” said Oliver Griswold, head of brand and marketing for the private Catholic college.

All residential and commuter students, faculty and staff must present a negative test result from within the previous 72 hours to enter campus. Commuter students will be tested weekly as well.

The Standish college dealt with two separate outbreaks last semester, the latter of which sent students home for the winter break about a week early.

Griswold said that compared to other colleges in Maine that experienced more outbreaks and with higher case numbers, the administration is confident in the protocols they laid out then and have improved upon for the spring.

The semester is starting a week later and there will not be spring break in order to limit travel on and off campus.

“We learned a ton about how to set up the next semester and how testing should look,” Griswold said. As of Wednesday afternoon, there are 620 residential students, 186 commuter or remote students and 1,333 students enrolled in the college’s online program. Griswold stressed that those numbers are subject to change.

The administration is ramping up testing protocols, including the introduction of once-weekly rapid antigen testing for both commuter and residential students, as well as more frequent testing for faculty and staff working on campus, Griswold said. The college did not have access to the rapid antigen tests last semester, which provide results in about 15 minutes.

If anyone receives a positive result, they will then be tested using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, a type of molecular test with a greater ability at detecting presence of the virus than antigen testing. PCR tests, often found at “swab-and-send” testing sites, take about 24 hours to get results.

Antigen tests are most accurate during the peak of infection, when someone is most likely to show symptoms of the coronavirus. Given the possibility for false negative results, the college has also implemented changes to their wastewater testing system, which can catch prevalence of the coronavirus up to six days before an antigen or PCR test can detect it.

Students interviewed said that they are excited to return to campus but acknowledged the different and difficult circumstances they face for the spring semester.

“I am excited to return to campus to see my friends, but I am not excited to return to campus with the coronavirus still, like, being a thing,” sophomore Ricky Reyes, 19, said this week.

He and Safa Al-Kinani, 21, said that as residential advisors, they found that students did well during the fall following protocols such as wearing masks at all times, limiting gatherings and social distancing.

Al-Kinani said that the experience was “pretty stressful,” but because she and her residents were “all in the same boat” they worked things out together.

She and Reyes attributed the end-of-semester outbreak in part to “fatigue,” but Al-Kinani is hopeful that students won’t let that happen again.

“Especially being a senior and this is my last semester, I’d hate to be at home,” she said.

Reyes said that although all of the COVID protocols felt like a “thorn in my side,” he said that trust among students and positive habits, such as “diligence with health,” were positive side effects.

Griswold and the students all said the previous spike in cases at at the college was reflective of what was going on in Standish and in Maine. Griswold pointed out that like with K-12 schools, there is little evidence to suggest that transmission is happening in classrooms, but rather in the greater community.

Still, he said, the administration is considering a stricter policy when it comes to students breaking protocols.

“Between messaging, enforcement and testing, we think we’re going to be in a better place,” Griswold said, and that the college is counting on everyone’s “trust and flexibility.”

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