Since March 2020, the College has fought the COVID-19 pandemic with restrictions intended to keep students as isolated as possible from the virus. Now, with the Omicron variant reaching its peak in Maine, the College has reimagined its approach to COVID-19, in the midst of the Omicron variant’s increased transmissibility.
Students attended classes virtually this week to account for those who tested positive before or soon after arriving on campus. The College removed student OneCard access to most buildings on campus in an effort to slow the virus’s spread.
COVID-19 Resource Coordinator and Director of Residential and Student Life Mike Ranen worked with the College to adjust the COVID-19 policies in an attempt to create a new semblance of normalcy.
“Part of learning to live with COVID is knowing there’s going to be cases every day,” Ranen said. “We’re still at a public health emergency, and the CDC still says that we need to isolate positive cases. So we feel [that] at this point, it’s still important to know how many positive cases we have on campus.”
The College is operating under modifications of CDC guidelines. As recommended by the CDC, students who test positive for COVID-19 are expected to self-isolate for five days, after which they begin rapid testing to see if they are still shedding the virus. If negative, students can reintegrate into campus life.
“We’re taking the CDC guidelines a step further because we’re lucky enough to have the resources that we can do more testing,” Ranen said.
The College is requiring all students to take a PCR test twice weekly, on Monday and Thursday, while all faculty must test once every week. Antigen tests are available Monday through Friday at Farley Field House for anyone who has developed COVID-19 symptoms.
The College included a booster vaccine requirement in its return-to-campus agreement for students, ensuring the greatest possible level of protection against the Omicron variant.
Isolation will look different than in previous semesters. Students who are not at risk will be expected to isolate in their living spaces, using COVID-designated bathrooms in residences, working out agreements with roommates and picking up food in the COVID-designated food lines at Thorne Hall if they feel well enough to do so. The College will also no longer be conducting contact tracing—students are instead expected to communicate with any possible exposures themselves.
“Now we have a mini COVID-positive dining hall in Thorne that allows students to have more choice,” After Hours COVID-19 Care Coordinator Louisa Barry-Hershberger wrote in an email to the Orient. “Since it has separate entrances and exits, everyone on campus can feel safe while also knowing that we are giving students more opportunities to control their isolation period.”
Barry-Hershberger explained that she sees new policies as increasing both independence and quality of life for COVID-positive students.
“Now that they can isolate in place, students don’t have to worry about forgetting anything and have access to a bed and environment they are already familiar and comfortable in, which appears to improve their mental health overall,” Barry-Hershberger wrote.
Students in isolation will be in communication with Barry-Hershberger and Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Assistant to the Dean for Student Affairs Katie Toro-Ferrari.
The College maintains isolation spaces on the top two floors of Stowe Inn and four apartments rented through the Maine State Music Theater on a case-by-case basis.
“Last semester, we [found] the percentage of close contacts who ended up testing positive was actually quite low,” Ranen said. “The idea of living with COVID is sort of learning how to adapt.”
Part of learning to adapt is dealing with a higher volume of cases on campus effectively.
“In prior semesters, we approached the process of isolating students with a very (intentional) high touch,” Toro-Ferrari wrote in an email to the Orient. “But as we were planning for the spring, it dawned on us that we just didn’t have the capacity to do that for 50-plus positive students on a given day. So we had to figure out how to maximize our existing human capital and still process students into isolation at a much larger scale.”
In their effort to maximize capital effectively, Barry-Hershberger and Toro-Ferrari collaborated with Information Technology (IT) and the Office of Communications to create a virtual system that collects student intake from isolation and tracks COVID-positive student cases.
“By streamlining the process of isolation on the front end and making sure all positive students get the same baseline instructions in a batch format, [Barry-Hershberger and I] have more capacity to address the individualized concerns from students and respond to them in a timely manner,” Toro-Ferrari wrote.
Another change from the previous three semesters is a shift away from the color system. Previously, the College communicated its restrictions during the pandemic through a system of red, orange, yellow and green to signify the severity of on-campus spread. This semester, however, the College will announce new restrictions in email updates to the campus community and through its dashboard.
“We wanted to put in specific regulations, [but] sometimes it didn’t necessarily add up to the color status. What we found is [last semester] we were actually changing the definition of the status levels, often to meet what we thought were the most appropriate campus restrictions,” Ranen said. “So we thought that a better way of that is to actually get rid of the color system and simply have a website that listed the current restrictions. We thought that was more transparent, because we would say we were in yellow, but early semester versus end of the semester yellow meant different things.”
In addition to moving away from the color system, Ranen will no longer send emails with positive test results to the campus community, although this information can still be found on the COVID-19 dashboard.
By tightening restrictions early in the semester, the College hopes to return to the level of normalcy seen last semester as soon as next week, once the initial peak of travel-related cases declines.
“Restrictions are not in place to punish students,” Ranen said. “Restrictions are in place to get us back to normal sooner.”