A University of Maine student raises his hand in a near-empty lecture hall during a hybrid class in November 2020. Maine colleges are instituting a variety of measures in an attempt to contain the spread of the omicron variant as the spring semester begins. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

More Maine colleges are requiring booster shots, some are pushing back the start of spring semester or starting classes remotely, and one is restricting the size of social gatherings and limiting campus visitors.

They’re among the measures colleges and universities are taking as they await a spring semester that will start amid a surge of COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. The more contagious variant will challenge colleges in replicating their relative success this fall in keeping the delta variant at bay as much of the rest of Maine struggled with surging cases.

No college so far has said it’s considering a fully remote semester, but four of Maine’s seven community colleges are delaying the spring semester’s start date from the first two weeks of January until later in the month due to rising cases, said Noel Gallagher, a Maine Community College System spokesperson.

Classes at all seven campuses, which have about 16,000 students, will now start on Jan. 17 or later.

In addition, the community college system last month announced a booster shot mandate for in-person students. Students must show evidence that they received a booster shot no more than one month after becoming eligible.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and will announce if there are any changes,” Gallagher said.

Meanwhile, the University of Maine System, with about 30,000 students at its seven universities and law school, announced Tuesday that students taking in-person classes will have to participate in weekly virus testing during the spring semester unless they’ve received a booster shot.

The university system requires that students be vaccinated, but it hasn’t mandated booster shots. That could change, however, if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adjusts the definition of “fully vaccinated” to include having a booster shot, University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said.

Amid a rapidly changing situation, some colleges are still deciding what the next semester will look like.

Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish nailed down details of its reopening in a meeting of its pandemic response team on Tuesday, said Oliver Griswold, the college’s chief brand and marketing officer.

The college will not go remote largely due to its high booster rate of 74 percent among students, faculty and staff. Saint Joseph’s announced a booster requirement in October, and it will conduct entry testing when students return for classes on Jan. 17.

“We think boosters are still the best way,” Griswold said. “We have a really high booster rate. It’s going to get higher in the next 13 days.”

At the University of New England, which has campuses in Portland and Biddeford, classes will remain in person, but the university is encouraging students and staff to hold meetings over Zoom at the beginning of the semester. The university also has a booster shot requirement.

At Colby College in Waterville, where many students began taking part in the college’s January term on Tuesday, social gatherings for students both on and off campus are limited to 10 people, the college said. The Office of the Dean of Students also needs to sign off before any visitors can come to campus.

Those policies will be enforced along with the more common booster and indoor mask requirements.

Husson University in Bangor will begin the semester offering in-person classes while closely monitoring new COVID-19 developments, said spokesperson Eric Gordon, though he did not rule out a remote transition.

“The health of our campus remains our first priority,” Gordon said. “Any future decisions we make related to moving exclusively online will reflect that commitment.”

Bates College in Lewiston and the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor will both begin classes remotely as they await COVID-19 test results for students returning to campus. Both colleges, which are requiring boosters for students, will begin in-person classes if the test results don’t show high levels of COVID-19 infections.

College of the Atlantic’s winter term began on Monday.

In an email to students and staff last week, college president Darron Collins said it was necessary to learn to live with the virus while managing its risks rather than waiting for the pandemic to end.

“I want to be forthright about what could be described as a tough way to start the winter term,” Collins said. “It’s not likely to unfold without some bumps in the road.”