Last March, during its 218th academic year, the College sent the student body home for the first time in institutional history. In the midst of every major world event from 1794 to present day, Bowdoin felt that it had the ability to maintain the safety of its students, faculty, staff and surrounding community. However, that streak came to a screeching halt with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were told during spring break in March of 2020 that they would not be allowed to return to campus.
“It was unprecedented,” said Dr. Jeffery Maher, director of health services, in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “The whole idea of sending students home was unprecedented. It’s not something the school has ever done. It didn’t happen during the World Wars [and] it didn’t happen during the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919.”
Maher was at the forefront of this monumental decision-making process. However, Bowdoin’s decision to send the student body home soon proved to be just the first of many seemingly impossible decisions the College had to make in the interest of student safety. Soon after the tumultuous spring 2020 semester, the College began the process of mapping out the safety mechanisms for the fall.
Maher understood that the College needed to prioritize the health and safety of everyone in the Bowdoin community, but he also had to ensure that there was, in fact, a sense of community. In a March 9 email last year to Janet Lohmann, dean of student affairs, Maher emphasized the importance of committing to community.
“One theme that continues to percolate to the top of my mind is the idea of acting altruistically during a time of crisis,” Maher wrote in that email. “Changing how we self-care, greet our friends and create social distance are acts of altruism. These actions show solidarity with the larger community and with those who are most vulnerable.”
The decision to test students was a given, but Bowdoin, unlike many other NESCAC schools, decided not to hire externally to staff its testing center in Morrell Gymnasium. Instead, the College relied on volunteers from every area of the campus community. For Maher, the proposed notion seemed daunting at the least.
“How was the school going to repurpose everybody in the Division of Student Affairs? Don’t we have other jobs to do?” Maher recounted thinking. “I don’t think I’m the only one who had reservations about it working, but it was a great testament to not only the leadership of the school, but also to the problem-solving of the people that work here.”
Through some doubt and with much perseverance, Bowdoin successfully launched and ran an operational testing center. Mike Ranen, the director of residential and student life, served as the COVID-19 resource coordinator. He reports that he is incredibly happy with how smoothly the center has operated.
“People volunteered. President Rose and his wife both worked in the testing center,” Ranen said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “We’re doing 1,500 tests every Monday, Wednesday and Friday…, [and] we don’t make mistakes.”
As the fall was winding down, Bowdoin’s COVID-19 response team was feeling confident with both the safety and the success of the College’s plan. This semester, the slow but expected transition to normalcy began.
“The most optimistic part of this whole process began with the vaccination rollout,” said Maher. “That’s going to bring us back to normal faster than we would have ever thought, even just two months ago.”
Maine’s incredible vaccine rollout has allowed students to have more freedom on and off campus this semester. With over 60 percent of Mainers ages 18 and older vaccinated, Bowdoin students have more opportunities to experience a more “normal” college experience. From Maine’s vaccine rollout to Bowdoin’s acquisition of rapid antigen tests, both Maher, as well as Ranen, believe that Bowdoin is trending in a very positive direction.
For example, athletic teams are able to play against other schools. The Bowdoin Outdoor Club goes on trips, and participants can stay in single-room cabins together. The 15-minute turnaround time for the antigen tests has even allowed Bowdoin’s theater department to put on a staged production without having to wear masks.
“I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. The vaccine is historic.” said Dr. Maher. “It’s rare to get emotional about a vaccine. I didn’t get emotional with my tetanus vaccine or diphtheria vaccine,” Maher said. “But it’s hard not to be emotional and feel the historical weight of a vaccine in a global pandemic.”