Cooper Bennett, a senior at the University of Maine, raises his hand to ask a question during an on-campus hybrid class on Friday. Bennett and one other student attended professor Clayton Wheeler’s class in person while many attended via Zoom. Professor Wheeler’s lectures are also recorded and posted for viewing outside of the classroom. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

First-year student Michael Gallant was excited to live on campus at the University of Maine in Orono when he moved in for the fall semester.

But there were no big sporting events he could attend, no socializing in dorm rooms and no way to meet his new classmates in person. All but one of his classes took place online, which was difficult for someone who learns better in person.

So next semester, Gallant won’t return to live on campus. He’ll live at home in Auburn and commute to Orono one day a week for his sole in-person class.

“If everything’s online and there are no activities happening on campus, I don’t see the point of being here,” Gallant said.

The lack of athletics and performing arts events, classes taught partially online with small, in-person contingents, mandatory mask use and social distancing, and regular virus testing of students and staff have all allowed UMaine to stick to its plan for a shortened, in-person semester this fall. But for students, it’s meant a quiet semester on campus.

From top left (clockwise): Cooper Bennett and Molly Carlotto, both seniors in chemical engineering at the University of Maine, attend an on-campus hybrid class while many attended class via Zoom; Professor Clayton Wheeler instructs a hybrid class at the University of Maine on Friday; Seats in a lecture hall are marked appropriately for on-campus hybrid classes at the University of Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

On Friday, days before students were to leave for Thanksgiving so they could finish the semester remotely, hardly anyone could be spotted on sidewalks, outside dorms or at picnic tables UMaine set up outside dining halls. The few people who were walking around were either alone or in small groups, all wearing face coverings.

Senior Austin Gilboe logged into Professor Clayton Wheeler’s Chemical Processes class from his apartment in Orono while the professor sat in a classroom at the university. Just two students sat with Wheeler in the classroom, which could have held more than 30. As Wheeler addressed students on Zoom and in class simultaneously, he shared his screen with everyone and also projected it in the classroom, which allowed everyone to follow along.

The fact that the class — and most other aspects of UMaine’s in-person semester — had continued uninterrupted surpassed Gilboe’s expectations.

“I was pretty much expecting to come to Orono for two weeks and then get sent home,” he said. “I guess it was kind of a nice surprise to stay here.”

While he stayed in Orono, he had limited in-person contact with others. The senior only attended one lab class in person this semester, where he interacted with a handful of other seniors, and completed all his other classes virtually.

Most of his in-person interaction came from his campus job as a tour guide. But the typical tours with dozens of people this semester became tours with a single student and one or two family members.

Still, Gilboe said, “it just brought a sense of normalcy and face-to-face interaction. We’ve seen a lot of prospective students be really grateful that they could still get a tour of the university.”

Molly Carlotto and Cooper Bennett, both seniors in chemical engineering at the University of Maine, attend an on-campus hybrid class on Friday. Although they were the only two physically in the lecture hall, many attended via Zoom. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

For Wheeler, the technological adjustment to simultaneous in-person and remote teaching wasn’t as daunting as figuring out how to get to know his new students virtually and find an alternate way of assessing their progress since the university can’t conduct typical end-of-semester exams this year.

And, as with all remote classes, Wheeler said it’s easier for students to fall behind because he can’t as easily gauge how engaged his students are, as they’re not physically in the same room.

“I guarantee some students who were remote who didn’t show their faces on Zoom were probably doing something else on their computers while they were just kind of half-engaged with what I was doing in the class,” he said. “I don’t know how to keep those students engaged, and I know that it’s easy for a student to kind of slip through the cracks.”

While many colleges and universities across the country saw virus outbreaks and had to shut down periodically this semester, Maine’s colleges and universities largely avoided that fate, with case numbers that have remained at one of the lowest levels in the country. Only this month has UMaine seen a spike in coronavirus cases as the university conducts a round of virus testing before students return home for Thanksgiving.

“As we close in on the end with people leaving or getting ready to leave in the next few days, this semester has been a success,” UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said late last week. “I would have not predicted for sure that we could get here.”

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