After a 2020-2021 school year that included a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction, masks, social distancing and other protocols to protect against the spread of COVID-19, area college officials say students returning for fall classes will have a more typical campus experience.

“The goal is to make it much more usual, or customary,” said interim University of New England Provost Karen Pardue.

UNE, the University of Southern Maine, Bowdoin College, Southern Maine Community College and Saint Joseph’s College are among the more than 675 U.S. colleges and universities that will require students and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as classes start up again.

A return to normalcy already is being seen on UNE’s Portland campus, Pardue said. Graduate students in the College of Dental Medicine, College of Pharmacy and the Westbrook College of Health Professions programs fully returned to the Stevens Avenue campus this spring and summer and students at the Biddeford campus are expected to do the same later this month.

“It’s so exciting to see the campus buzzing with students again,”  she said.

University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings said students and staff are “overjoyed” to return to the school’s Gorham and Portland campuses and reconnect in person. Close to 80% of classroom instruction over the last year and a half was conducted online due to the pandemic. Cummings estimates 75% of classes for the 2021-2022 school year will return fully to in-person.

“COVID has put us in a position where some of the social supports and connections that make a strong campus culture were diminished, so there are a lot of excitement getting back on campuses,” he said.

The University of Maine system announced last week that students throughout the system, which includes the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine School Law in Portland, will have to be vaccinated to live, attend classes or participate in sports or activities on campuses.

“The time has come that we, by necessity, must require our students to be vaccinated,” Chancellor Dannel P. Malloy said Aug. 4.  The decision, he added, was made “based on public health and the science that presented itself.”

Student who receive medical or religious exemption or those who are  in the process of becoming fully vaccinated when classes resume Aug. 30 will be required to participate in asymptomatic screening, wear a mask and abide by other safety protocols in order to participate in on-campus activities. Otherwise, unvaccinated students will not be allowed on campus.

Cummings said the vaccination requirement allows USM to lift building capacity restrictions, including for the dorms in Gorham.

Like at USM, students at UNE, Saint Joseph’s College in Standish and Bowdoin College in Brunswick, will not be asked to wear a mask and social distancing will not be required.

At Southern Maine Community College campuses in South Portland and Brunswick, some classes will return to in-person this fall, but most will still be offered online.

The Maine Community Colleges Board of Trustees updated the COVID-19 safety protocols Aug. 12 to require all students attending classes in person to be vaccinated against COVID-19. That may also be required for staff as well. Conversations with employee bargaining units are underway.

“The safety of our faculty, staff and students has been our top priority throughout the pandemic. The latest information about the delta variant makes it clear we must require vaccinations to keep our community as safe as possible,” MCCS President David Daigler said.

Students must show proof that they have received at least one dose of a vaccine prior to the first day of their in-person classes and proof of the second shot no later than 30 days after the date of their first class. Classes begin at the school Aug. 30.

Returning students to full in-person instruction, Pardue said, is critical to UNE instruction because  many of the programs focus on “hands-on and experiential learning.”  It is difficult to teach someone in the health sciences or the marine programs, for example, to use equipment or practice technique “without having them in a lab,” she said.

“For many students, having that ability to connect with professors so you can ask for help and being able to connect with other students is something that is very much built into the in-person experience,” Cummings said.

Local university officials are hoping vaccinations will curb the spread of the virus, but Pardue and Cummings said contingency plans are in place in case virus protocols, such as masking, have to be reinstated.

On Aug. 5, the Centers for Disease Control listed Cumberland County as a place of substantial community spread of COVID and city officials in Portland are recommending individuals wear masks inside again even if they are vaccinated.

“If 2020 taught us anything, it it is think about the unexpected because it might just happen,” Pardue said.

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