County universities prepare for Fall 2020 ‘Safe Return’ to campus

4 years ago

The two University of Maine System campuses in The County are prepared for students to return this week, with a Fall 2020 Safe Return plan designed with UMS officials.

Students who attend the University of Maine at Fort Kent and University of Maine at Presque Isle will be expected to abide by safety protocols implemented in the plan, including social distancing and wearing protective face coverings to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Students arriving on both campuses will also undergo testing for the virus.

At UMFK, all 171 students living on campus, athletes and those coming from outside Maine, whether or not they live on campus will be required to undergo testing. On campus students will need to quarantine in their dorm rooms for the 24-72 hours it takes to receive test results.

“If we have students on campus who test positive, we do have isolation space for them to move into to keep them separate from everybody else,” said UMFK Dean of Students Matt Morrin.

The students will all be provided with thermometers, masks, hand sanitizers and information about COVID-19. Personal protective equipment will be available around campus, including in each classroom. Personnel will go into each room after students leave and wipe down high touch areas.

Visitors will not be allowed in campus dorms, nor is the general public allowed to enter the UMFK Sport Center. Fall sports at UMFK have been postponed until spring , although athletes will still have practices.

At the University of Maine at Presque Isle, students will arrive on campus next week.

President Ray Rice pointed out that UMPI has conducted two rounds of COVID-19 testing so far, each with around 30 people.

“Everyone has tested negative so far,” Rice said.

The university will conduct more tests early next week and then another round seven to 10 days later to ensure that there are no false results. Next week’s testing will include around 300 people, mostly students who are moving into the residence halls.

Half of the residential students will live in single-person rooms while the rest will share a room with one peer only. Rooms with three students will not be allowed. UMPI will keep Park Hall, one of their three residence halls, closed and will only utilize the space if students have to quarantine. Campus officials chose Park Hall due to its capability to potentially house 30 students in single rooms with their own bathrooms.

Sarah Coyer, UMPI director of student life, pointed out that out of the 230 students moving into the two remaining residence halls — Emerson and Merriman Hall — 80 are out-of-state students. But at least 20 of those students remained in Aroostook County during the summer for employment.

As is the case at UMFK, no outside guests, including students living in another building, will be allowed to visit each residence hall. Students have been receiving information on how to socially distance both inside and outside the halls.

They will be asked to wear their masks any time they are not in their dorm rooms and carry hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes for their classroom desks and tables.

Despite the restrictions, Coyer said, students have been overwhelmingly supportive of the new normal and understand the risks involved with not complying with social distancing and mask rules.

“They want to come back, so they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make that possible,” Coyer said. “They realize what is at stake.”

Blake Library at the University of Maine at Fort Kent is getting ready for returning fall semester students.
Staff Photo/Jessica Potila

Throughout the semester, student athletes will receive COVID-19 tests weekly in order to participate in practices, and will need to comply with how each coach implements social distancing.

Rice noted that while cross-country and golf will allow for easier social distancing measures, the fate of the soccer and volleyball seasons will likely depend on the number of COVID-19 cases in Maine and what plans other colleges decide to implement.

“We’ve been speaking with Colby College and Thomas College about possibly having matches at the end of September or early October,” Rice said. “But we’ll follow Maine’s COVID-19 situation closely and see how comfortable everyone feels about scheduling matches.”

The remainder of the student body will not be required to receive COVID-19 tests regularly unless doing so becomes necessary. All faculty members plan to teach at least one or more courses fully online and incorporate technology that allows distance learners to “attend” classes live and/or keep up with coursework through an online learning management system.

In “blended learning” classes, half the students will attend on Tuesday and the other half will attend on Thursday. The arrangement will require that students complete the remainder of the week’s assignments online and allow for better social distancing, with a smaller group of students attending each day.

As per the University of Maine System plan, all UMFK and UMPI students will remain at home after Thanksgiving break and complete the semester online.

But Rice said that all UMPI faculty members have back-up plans to use in the event that COVID-19 cases rise and UMPI must transition to a fully online format again. Still, Rice hopes that the rural nature of Aroostook County and the cooperation of students, faculty and staff can potentially help the campus avoid such a scenario.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that with the advice we’ve received from the Maine CDC and how prepared we are compared to last spring, we can hopefully get through the semester until Thanksgiving,” Rice said.

So far 68 UMFK students have been tested, all with negative results.

UMFK President Deborah Hedeen said she is confident in the Safe Return Plan for the fall semester, but acknowledged that some test results could return as positive for the virus at some point.

“We care deeply about the safety of our campus community and the St. John Valley area,” Hedeen said. “We anticipate that there will likely be positive cases and our response to each situation is at the forefront of our collaborative work with the CDC and the University of Maine System.”