LEWISTON — After starting its new semester with remote classes, Bates College switched back to in-person classes Tuesday after initial COVID-19 tests found its students had a manageable number of positive cases.

One big change accompanied the move: a new requirement that students wear high-quality masks whenever they are in public indoor spaces, including dormitories.

“It is increasingly important not only to wear a mask, but to wear the right kind of mask and wear it correctly,” Joshua McIntosh, vice president for campus life, told students.

Starting Tuesday, students were ordered to wear only surgical, KN95 or N95 masks. It also gave each of them 25 of the newly mandated masks.

Bates College requires students to get COVID-19 tests twice weekly and to wear high-quality masks whenever they’re inside college buildings in common spaces, including classrooms. Steve Collins/ Sun Journal

Switching to higher quality masks that provide greater protection is an idea that’s increasingly discussed by public health professionals, including Dr. Nirav Shah, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

McIntosh said 50 students tested positive for COVID-19 at Bates last week and another 50 discovered they had cases before returning. Nine employees also tested positive last week.

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Students who tested positive on campus are required to stay in isolation housing. Those who learned they have the disease before heading to Lewiston were told to stay away until they are cleared to return.

McIntosh said many of the students in isolation on campus are showing symptoms of the disease, but none have a severe illness.

“The relative risk of severe illness is low in a fully vaccinated and boosted 18-to-22-year-old population that is relatively healthy,” McIntosh said. Even so, though, those who contract the disease may well find it “bothersome, disruptive and unpleasant,” he added.

McIntosh said that a “widespread campus illness of this nature would require significant operational support of students to minimize campus spread.”

He also reminded students that faculty and staff members are older, sometimes with elderly loved ones or small children at home who may be more vulnerable.

“I share this as a reminder that for many members of our shared community, COVID-19 remains a very serious health concern,” McIntosh said.

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The college dropped its ban on students visiting residence halls where they don’t live but retained its rule against outsiders entering Bates buildings except for vendors and contractors.

The college is sticking with a grab-and-go dining system until Jan. 30 to minimize the close contact that its communal dining normally entails.

McIntosh said students should stay on campus as well except for “doing only what is absolutely necessary in the community,” such as going to medical appointments or buying groceries.

“I know this has been a tough way to begin our semester together, but we are committed to bringing back to life those elements of the student experience as it is safe to do so,” McIntosh said.

He said he’s heard from people who want stricter policies and from those who want Bates to ease up.

“We know that the decisions made to keep a community of over 2,500 students, faculty, and staff healthy through the omicron wave will be different from those made for the well-being of an individual or a household,” he said.

McIntosh told students he appreciated “all that you are doing to adapt, once again, to changing circumstances; to keep yourselves, your peers, and our college community healthy; and to bring your energy, optimism, and flexibility to bear as we continue to navigate this together.”

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