University of Southern Maine students Blaine Bickford and Mary Hyde walk through the Gorham campus Wednesday. Both are looking forward to connecting with younger students in their music education programs and having more in-person music performances. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Students across the University of Maine System could be attending more classes in person next fall, living on campus in greater numbers and getting back to more of the group activities that have been restricted this year because of COVID-19.

The system announced Wednesday that it plans on welcoming students back for a “traditional, in-person college experience” at the start of the fall semester. The announcement comes five days after Gov. Janet Mills unveiled updated public health guidelines and as Maine’s vaccinated population grows.

“We are actively working towards normalcy with a full expectation that our late August opening will be very much like those of years past as opposed to the experience we had this past year,” Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. “It’s an exciting moment for us. There is an acknowledgement always that we are controlled by civil authority, but with the pronouncements the governor has made … we are heading towards something approaching normalcy.”

Some details of what exactly next fall could look like have yet to be worked out, but guidance released by the system Wednesday says staff and students should plan for more in-person instruction, courses and activities; more people in attendance at these activities; more students in residence halls; and more facilities open with fewer restrictions.

Several students welcomed the announcement Wednesday afternoon on the University of Southern Maine campus.

Freshman Cheymonia Slater, 18, said she’d like to see masks and social distancing remain, but looks forward to more socializing in dorms.

“It would be great to have a different college experience than one in a pandemic,” she said.

Freshman Jayden Jacques said his first year living on campus hasn’t been the typical college experience he imagined. Many students have struggled this year and are looking forward to having more options for activities next year, he said.

Jayden Jaques of Sanford, a freshman at the University of Southern Maine, is looking forward to more activities and a more typical college experience next fall. “I’m kind of excited because everything will open up and we’ll have a better experience,” he said at the Gorham campus on Wednesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I’m kind of excited because everything will open up and we’ll have a better experience,” Jacques said.

First-year student McKenna Doughty, however, said the announcement also raises concerns about how to keep everyone safe with more people on campus.

“I think having more people here could end in a bad way,” she said. “We don’t want an outbreak. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Throughout the spring, the system plans to continue following physical distancing and safety requirements, and will continue with its asymptomatic and wastewater testing schedules. Some protocols, such as mask wearing and group size limits, could still be in place in the fall, and much will depend on the most recent guidance from the state, system officials said during a virtual news conference Wednesday.

“What you’re hearing about the checking in and new events designed to be consistent with pandemic rules, we’re going to take the very best that we’ve learned from all of that and continue it on top of getting back to normal,” said University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy.

To date, case counts and positivity rates across the seven campuses have been low. The most recent 14-day positivity rate is 0.17 percent, representing 27 positive results among about 16,257 tests. That’s well below the statewide rate, which was 1.5 percent on Tuesday and has been above 3 percent at other points this month. As of Tuesday there were 19 known active cases among more than 30,000 faculty, staff and students.

Cheymonia Slater, a USM freshman from Albany, N.Y., walks through the Gorham campus Wednesday. Slater is looking forward to a traditional fall semester. “It would be great to have a different college experience than one in a pandemic,” she said.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Across the UMaine System, about 55 percent of classes were delivered exclusively online this spring compared with 18 percent in spring 2020. About 6 percent of classes were hybrid, featuring both online and in-person instruction, compared to less than 2 percent in spring 2020.

Malloy said the “vast majority” of classes previously offered in person will be offered in person again, but the university may preserve distance or remote opportunities for students who desire them.

“There will be modalities of delivery,” he said. “But if you look at our past two semesters, the vast majority of learning was taking place on a distance basis. We’re now predicting and designing course offerings around a return to normal activity.”

USM is planning on more than 70 percent of classes and internships being in-person this fall assuming no changes to state guidelines and requirements. The university, which in recent years has often been above capacity in dorms on its Gorham campus, is planning for about 95 percent occupancy in residence halls. Fall occupancy was 61 percent and that dropped to 47 percent this spring.

Increases in vaccinations factored into the system’s plans as it is likely most faculty and staff will have access to the vaccine by the fall. About 25 percent are currently eligible and 75 percent are expected to be eligible by May. Statewide, 21 percent of Maine’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and 12 percent are fully vaccinated.

Jim McClymer, president of the Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine, a union representing faculty across the system, said the vaccine has given many faculty members hope for the fall semester.

“If we can lower the prevalence of people getting sick, I think people are really excited about getting back to a full college experience that recognizes the value of people interacting on a college campus,” he said.

One thing that remains to be seen is whether the system will change its plans for graduations after having previously announced that ceremonies scheduled for May 8 would be held virtually. According to the new guidance and plans from the governor, increased group size limits of 50 percent occupancy indoors and 75 percent outdoors, along with the physical distancing, will be required at that time.

Malloy said the system hasn’t yet made changes to graduation plans, but it is something that is being looked at.

“If circumstances change significantly such that we could host fuller graduations, even perhaps breaking them up, that remains a possibility,” he said. “A lot of that will depend on what civil authority allows us to do.”


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