The Colby College campus is seen in this Feb. 8, 2019, file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

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The spread of the new coronavirus forced colleges across the country to close their campuses this spring. Now, many are looking at whether to open back up this fall or consider alternative strategies, and their choices could have a major financial impact.

This should be the time of year when colleges and universities in Maine are preparing for graduation ceremonies. But the focus for many is now on September.

“We’re going to operate on the assumption that we’re going to be open. But we’re not going to be so naive as to not plan for the possibility, should we not be able to be,” University of New England President James Herbert said.

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

Herbert said the decision on whether to resume in-person classes or continue teaching online will be based on factors such as the trajectory of the virus and the availability of tests, which have been difficult to access so far. And he said classes, dining halls and dorms will also need to be reconfigured.

“For example, if we do bring students back to campus, it’s very likely that we’ll have to institute some kind of social distancing protocols. So we have to think through all that,” he said. ” What would that mean for dining services, and for the dormitories, and for the classrooms, and for athletics? Just all of the myriad activities that students engage in. We really need to think through all of those contingency plans. We also need to think through what happens if a student tests positive. So we need to have testing in place, of course. And contact tracing. And if a student is positive or presumptive positive, we’ll have to isolate them.”

Herbert said the university has set up a committee that’s specifically looking at how to answer these questions amid the uncertainty. Colleges say they plan to follow guidance from the state on the matter, and other schools are working with local hospitals and officials to evaluate the safety and health implications of opening. But Herbert, by starting to plan early, hopes the school can give itself plenty of time before it has to make a final decision.

Other schools are also redesigning their classes to prepare for any scenario that could arise. Darron Collins, the president of Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic, said with students from 55 countries and more than 40 states, travel restrictions may limit who can even get there.

“One of the contingency plans that we’re working on is how would we deliver a hybrid program where some cohort of the student body is on campus, and some cohort isn’t? And again, across the spectrum of courses, that is a lot easier to do in some cases, and a lot more difficult to do in others,” he said.

But some colleges are more skeptical of continuing with online learning if campuses can’t open in the fall. Colby College President David Greene said his institution is built on in-person, interpersonal relationships. Which is why he would likely recommend that if in-person classes can’t begin in the fall to delay the semester and instead start classes as late as January, then extend the school year into next summer, instead of having to go online.

“We’re really trying to focus on those two things, on how we have that great classroom environment, but how we have that full experience that enriches that environment and allows our students to really thrive. And we would rather wait to allow that to happen than to be in a position where we’re offering online courses for an extended period of time,” he said.

And if colleges can’t open in the fall, the loss of revenue could have a big effect on their finances.

“There is no question it would hurt,” said Laurie Lachance, the president of Thomas College in Waterville.

Lachance said her school feels optimistic about its finances right now, particularly because it was able to receive a loan from the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program, along with other federal funds for higher education. But she said the loss of room and board revenue this fall could cost the school more than $2 million.

“But that’s why, the hope is if we as the community of Maine do all the things we’re supposed to be doing, and seem to be doing quite well right now to bend this curve, it will hopefully give us the optimal opportunity to, if not come back in a normal format, then at least only have to suffer a delay. Instead of a total loss of a semester of living on campus,” she says.

Bates College in Lewiston estimates that even with help from the federal government, it has lost at least $1.5 million so far due to the pandemic, and will likely spend up to $6 million more to provide additional financial aid in the fall. Like many colleges across the state, the school has instituted a freeze on hiring.

But some schools see an opportunity in the situation. The University of Maine System is offering in-state tuition rates to any U.S. college student displaced because of a closure related to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. And the University of Southern Maine is offering one-time scholarships to college students from Maine who attend school out of state, and may want to come back home because of concerns about COVID-19.

“I thought this could be a really great offer that we make for families, in a time where they’re looking to perhaps consider an option where it feels more safe, closer to home. Where they have a little more control over where they are, and how far they are from families,” said Jared Cash, the university’s vice president of enrollment management and marketing.

But the University of Maine System is also facing its own financial challenges. Chancellor Dannel Malloy estimates the loss of at least $30 million because of COVID-19. The system is hoping that the federal government will eventually help make up some of that shortfall. But there’s no legislation immediately on the horizon to address the problem.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.