In this Nov. 20, 2020, file photo, 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. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine’s seven public universities will allow individual professors and departments the option of starting the spring semester remotely with administrators’ approval, the University of Maine System said this week.                                                           

The option comes amid concerns from colleges in Maine about the spread of the omicron variant among students and faculty as they gear up for the coming semester. The University of Maine System’s semester starts Jan. 18, and professors and departments have the option to seek administrators’ permission to go remote through the end of the month.

Already, a handful of other Maine colleges are either starting the semester with remote classes or, in the case of some community colleges, delaying the start of the semester.

A switch to remote instruction or a hybrid model at the state’s public universities could occur for various reasons, whether due to a surge in COVID-19 cases locally or an effort to protect students or faculty who are medically compromised, according to a message from University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy. Campus departments as well as individual instructors can make those decisions.

The system still plans to start the semester with the assumption that in-person learning can be safely offered, Malloy said.

The university campuses are “one of the most highly vaccinated environments in the state, with far lower case and test positivity rates than the state as a whole,” he wrote.

The University of Southern Maine will see many of its programs start remotely, though there will be a priority placed on maintaining courses such as labs that are more dependent on in-person instruction, university president Glenn Cummings said.

USM has more online-based courses than many other system campuses, and many of its students are nontraditional college students, including older adults with children, Cummings said. Many of those students may see their own children learning remotely, making in-person attendance less realistic, Malloy noted in his letter.

“To a greater extent, our ability to move in this direction is pretty strong,” Cummings said.

The university’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences has decided against starting fully in-person, though Cummings said that some of the college’s offerings may be more of a hybrid model than fully remote.

Whether remote arrangements stay in place after Jan. 31 will likely depend on case levels at that point.

“If the data is showing that the spike is starting to really drop, I think we’ll go back to even more in-person classes,” Cummings said.

The flagship University of Maine in Orono, meanwhile, will prioritize in-person learning while allowing flexibility given the spread of the new variant, spokesperson Dan Demeritt said.

“UMaine students who have signed up for in-person classes should anticipate being with their professors and fellow students in the classroom from the start of the semester on Jan. 18,” University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said.

While Maine has not seen daily transmission rates as high as the rest of the U.S. during this surge, cases and hospitalizations have reached record highs in recent weeks. Many public health officials fear the virus could spread even more, noting that Maine often sees nationwide coronavirus trends weeks after they occur elsewhere.

Given the pace of the virus’ spread and the fact that university officials won’t know about many cases due to the prevalence of at-home tests whose results aren’t reported, Malloy said it was less practical and even “unrealistic” for the university system to institutionally track and isolate those who are infected.

The university system will continue a number of public health measures from the past semester, including a requirement that everyone on-campus be vaccinated or have a valid exemption, an indoor mask requirement, a reduction in large gatherings and frequent coronavirus testing.

Still, at this stage in the pandemic, it’s clear that a complete switch to remote learning is not possible, Malloy said, as fully remote instruction has been detrimental to students’ learning in the long term and decreased faculty-student interactions.

“We’ll proceed cautiously for the first two weeks, adjusting to local conditions flexibly and prudently,” Malloy said.

The omicron surge has presented yet another roadblock on the return to normalcy, Cummings said.

“This certainly puts a chilling effect on our ability to get back to a fully pre-pandemic culture,” he said. “That’s been disappointing, because we’ve started to head in that direction.”