Hathorn Hall at Bates College in Lewiston. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — As ever more Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, Bates College hopes life on campus may be almost back to normal next fall.

“With positive news breaking every week,” said Malcolm Hill, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, “we are optimistic that by the fall, student life at Bates will look much more like it did before the pandemic.”

Malcolm Hill, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Bates College. Bates College photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen

In a note to the college community Wednesday, Hill said that given President Joe Biden’s announcement this week that vaccines should be available for all adults by the end of May, the college may be able to return to normal schedules and allow for “greater flexibility for the in-person gatherings and activities that are such an essential part of the Bates experience.”

Hill said, though, that public health experts who have been advising Bates for the past year “have cautioned us that a certain level of masking and physical distancing may be necessary, and potentially required by state mandates, through at least the end of the calendar year 2021.”

Hill’s message follows a year of difficulties for the 1,800-student college that closed its campus a year ago as the pandemic hit and has imposed a range of rules on students to keep them as safe as possible from COVID-19 since they returned to campus in August.

Despite what Hill called the “considerable uncertainty” that remains, the college’s newfound optimism had the immediate impact of hitting the brakes on plans to continue dividing academic periods so that students typically take two courses at a time rather than four over the course of a full semester.

The faculty voted Monday to adopt the split semesters again in the fall, but administrators said they are not sure it will be necessary.

The modular structure, used for both semesters this academic year at Bates, aimed to reduce the density of classroom use since fewer classes meet at the same time and to ease the hardship if students had to be sent home midsemester should the disease spread.

Hill said that because of Biden’s announcement about the unexpectedly rapid acceleration of vaccine production and availability of vaccines for all adults before June “we intend to take time to assess whether this development may change the outlook for the fall semester.”

Hill said several factors will be considered as the college tries to figure out what the fall semester will look like, including the pace of vaccines, especially for college-age Americans, and whether new variants of the coronavirus emerge.

The public policy dictates of the state will also have to be taken into account, he said.

In the meantime, Hill said, it’s important to continue masking and physical distancing to keep the pandemic from growing worse.

He said it is unlikely the college will be 100% back to normal for the fall, but it may be a lot closer than it is now, when students face an array of restrictions on what they can do and where they can go.

“Many of our faculty and students are eager to return to the full-semester, four-course model as soon as it is possible and prudent,” Hill said.

“But with the facts we can count on today, we’re not there yet,” he said.

Hill said that if the college ultimately decides to adopt the modular schedule again for the fall, it doesn’t mean that other aspects of life at Bates will remain as restricted as they have been.

“We will be working on these dimensions of the student experience this spring and over the summer, as we continue to learn more,” he said.

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