GORHAM — The University of Southern Maine’s campus was abuzz Thursday morning with students moving in for the fall semester, unpacking cars with their families and dancing to music streaming from speakers outside dorms.

“I’m super excited,” said Owen Bufagna, a freshman from Newton, New Hampshire, as he finished unpacking at Anderson Hall. “I was supposed to move in tomorrow but I got pushed to a day early and I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to be a wrestler here and I’m excited to make new friends.”

In many ways Thursday, the first student move-in day at Maine’s second-largest public university campus, felt like a normal return to school. Young people eagerly carried laundry baskets and boxes up to their dorms. Parents snapped one last picture before saying good-bye. Cheerful upperclassmen checked students into their new living arrangements and gave directions.

But the return of students to USM as well as other campuses in the University of Maine System also comes as Maine is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the spread of the delta variant. A total of 390 cases were reported statewide Thursday, the highest one-day total since early May.

“We’re optimistic but cautious,” said USM President Glenn Cummings, citing recent decisions to mandate COVID vaccines for all in-person students and require masks indoors as key to bringing students back safely. “There’s no question the disease has regrouped and come back with a vengeance so we’ve had to make several adjustments over the past few weeks.”

As of Thursday, 17,460 – 64.2 percent – of the 27,196 UMaine System faculty, staff and students expected to attend in-person this fall had verified their vaccination status. That number is changing daily as more employees and students get vaccinated and verify their status, and as the number of people deciding to participate in person fluctuates.

The system is reporting higher vaccination rates, however, among smaller populations of full-time employees and residence hall students – two groups that are likely to spend the most time on campus. Vaccination rates for full-time employees range from 68.6 percent at UMaine Machias to a high of 95.1 percent at the University of Maine School of Law.

Shaelyn Finch, a freshman from Sanford, takes a COVID test on move-in day at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham on Thursday. UMaine System campuses are requiring students who are unvaccinated or have not verified their vaccination status to be tested when they arrive, and weekly thereafter. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Among residence hall students, 88.9 percent are vaccinated at the University of Maine and 96 percent are vaccinated at USM.

Students who intend to live in a dorm, take class in person or participate in activities must be vaccinated by Oct. 15 or they will be asked to study remotely and could lose on-campus housing.

In the meantime, campuses are requiring asymptomatic COVID testing upon arrival and weekly thereafter for those who are unvaccinated or who have not verified their vaccination status.

“We’ve put in place every measure we know about to make our campuses as safe as we know how to do, so students will be able to have an experience typical of what people expect at residential universities,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, president of UMaine Orono and chair of the UMaine System Science Advisory Board, which is charged with tracking and responding to COVID developments.

Between testing, vaccinations and masking indoors, Ferrini-Mundy said, the system is optimistic, but will make adjustments if needed. Currently, the Orono campus has just 16 quarantine and isolation beds set aside, but they will work with local hotels to add capacity if needed. Students getting ready to travel to Orono who are symptomatic or an unvaccinated close contact should consider delaying their arrival due to the limited quarantine space, but the university will also work with individual students to meet their needs.

Move-in at USM is taking place over four days, with students arriving at staggered times to limit crowding. New students who hadn’t verified their vaccination status, as well as honors students, arrived Thursday. New vaccinated students will continue to arrive Friday. Returning students will move in Saturday and Sunday.

In addition, about 50 students will be living at the DoubleTree hotel in South Portland, where the university has secured space to reduce occupancy in dorms and avoid triples.

Halee Grant, a freshman from Houlton, right, gets help from her brother Parker Grant, left, and her friend Zach Jeffery, all of Houlton, on move-in day at the University of Southern Maine on Thursday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

There’s no vaccination mandate now for UMaine System employees, though the system has said it plans to implement a requirement and has been negotiating with labor unions.

“The University of Maine System is committed to having a vaccination requirement for every student, faculty, and staff member who will be participating in on-campus activities this fall,” said spokesman Dan Demeritt in an email. “The university anticipates concluding discussions with its labor unit partners in the next few days and expects to have an announcement regarding an employee mandate next week.”

Classes in the UMaine System start Monday and students will be arriving on campuses through the weekend. Most students at UMaine Orono, the state’s flagship, will begin arriving Friday. Students across the system should see more in-person learning with about 60 percent of credit hours systemwide expected to be delivered fully in-person. Last fall, just 21 percent of credit hours were fully in person.

“It will look very much like a normal experience but it will definitely feel different because you will be wearing a mask,” said Cummings, the USM president. “It reminds people of the poignancy of the disease. I also think there will be a lot of discussion around, ‘Do you have your exemption? Are you making sure to get your testing?’ If you do have an exemption we will be in regular contact with you to ask if you are getting tested.”

On campus Thursday, students and parents were excited and hopeful for the new year. “I’m really excited,” said Isabella Ross, a freshman from Trenton. “I’ve never lived in a city before, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Ross and her mother, Snow Ross, are both vaccinated and said they are happy the system mandated vaccines for students.

“I feel like they’re taking really good steps to keep things from spreading,” said Isabella Ross, 18. “I’m honestly really happy they’re asking people to get vaccinated and masking on top of that. I think that’s a really smart decision, so I feel comfortable.”

USM’s Gorham campus has a COVID testing site at the Costello Sports Complex. Students who intend to live in dorms, take classes in person or participate in activities must be vaccinated by Oct. 15 or they will be asked to study remotely and could lose on-campus housing. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Halee Grant, a freshman from Houlton, made the four-hour drive to campus Thursday morning with her parents, her brother and a friend, arriving in two cars that they quickly unloaded outside her new dorm. “I’m mostly excited but a little sad about leaving home,” Grant said.

Grant was one of less than 100 USM students who are living in dorms and still hadn’t registered their vaccination status Thursday morning. She is vaccinated but hadn’t yet done the verification because she lost her vaccine card and had to get it replaced.

“(COVID) still does make me nervous but the fact they’re mandating vaccines here makes me a lot more at ease,” she said. “I’ve been working in a nursing home and that was one of the biggest places to catch it first, so I’ve been working around it. I’m not too nervous.”

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