Students walk on the University of Maine campus in March, just days before the university asked students to go home for the spring semester due to the coronavirus.

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While colleges and universities around the country plan for the possibility of a fall semester without students on campus, Maine’s public universities are preparing for students to return for fall classes.

That’s not to say campus life would look as it did before the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Maine System is preparing for face-to-face instruction as long as group gatherings and interactions are permissible and advisable by the end of August, according to university system spokesman Dan Demeritt.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

A planning committee formed by University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy has started planning different scenarios for the fall semester based on varying coronavirus-driven social distancing rules and guidelines that could be in effect by the start of the fall semester.

The plans at Maine’s public universities are more optimistic than those of some universities in other New England states. In Massachusetts, some universities are planning for scenarios under which campuses remain closed to students until next year. And in Vermont, the state college system is debating the permanent closure of three campuses because of the financial consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Maine, the largely rural locations of public universities campuses along with social distancing rules that Gov. Janet Mills put into place as the pandemic accelerated in Maine have informed plans to open back up to students potentially earlier than some city-based universities, said University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who also oversees the University of Maine at Machias in addition to the flagship campus in Orono.

“We are not in a city in the way that the Boston universities of course are,” she said. “We’re very much in touch with [public health] networks, which I think gives us an even wider insight into where we are as a state.”

At UMaine, the university has started making a list of all large lecture courses to determine if they need to be split up, Ferrini-Mundy said.

The university will also be looking to the state for guidance on international student admissions; general travel by students, professors and athletic teams; athletic events and performances; arrangements for employees returning to work on campus; and the use of residence and dining halls where students are often in close quarters.

“We are planning under the assumption that there will be public health guidance in place that will require the university to adapt protocols and practices as part of our work to safely bring students, employees, and the public back to our campuses in the fall,” Demeritt said. “Consequently we could have thousands of decisions to make under a broad array of operational and academic categories.”

So far, enrollment projections for the fall semester at UMaine are “generally on track,” said Christopher Richards, the university’s director of undergraduate enrollment management. But it’s not possible right now to predict the actual number of students on campus this fall.

“If this were a normal year and we were looking at data right now, I’d say I feel very confident in our goals and chances of meeting those goals, but right now it’s impossible to really forecast that given the current climate,” Richards said, “because there’s a lot of families and students who are making decisions, and maybe have already made them and are changing their mind.”

Since the economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has changed the financial situation for some students and their families, the university system is encouraging current students and students who expect to enroll in the fall to reach out to admissions offices. UMaine will evaluate each student’s case to see if there are any financial aid or scholarship opportunities available, Richards said.

The university system is planning to devote $97 million to gift aid in the upcoming academic year, which is the largest amount of money the system has committed to gift aid.

The system is encouraging college students and family members whose financial situations have changed to reach out to admissions offices. Richards said UMaine will evaluate each student’s case to see if there are any financial aid or scholarship opportunities available.

“Family circumstances are changing as we speak, relative to their own financial situations,” Richards said. “Families that will face these new circumstances and how we help them is very central in our minds.”

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