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Despite strict guidelines and testing, Bates College sees COVID spike as students begin to leave campus

Following a semester with relatively low numbers, the college currently has 10 positive cases in students and 62 students in quarantine.
Credit: Bates College

LEWISTON, Maine — Bates College welcomed its 1,800 students back in August with 113 isolation beds designated for potential COVID-19 cases.

For most of the semester, nearly all of those beds remained vacant.

But in recent weeks, the college has reported 10 positive cases of the coronavirus in students—including one diagnosed elsewhere after a student had already returned home—and two positive cases in employees, according to a college-run dashboard.

Despite strict rules and enforcement, and overall compliance by students with mask-wearing and social distancing, students seemed to become complacent about the virus as the end of the semester approached, sources said.

"Bates set its guidelines and they've been pretty strict about enforcing them," Vanessa Paolella, editor of The Bates Student, the college's student-run newspaper, said Thursday, although she added, "There's only so much they can do."

"The students have been really great, really thoughtful about following the guidelines," Mary Pols, a spokeswoman for the college, said Thursday.

Paolella said some students were "very unhappy" with the "strict" rules—particularly those that prohibited them from visiting students in other dorms and required them to wear a mask at all times on campus unless in their own dorm room.

"Students who violated the guidelines were sent home," she said. "Students who didn't show up for testing were sent a strictly-worded email that they must test the next day before 8 a.m. or risk being sent home."

"I think [the students] have adapted incredibly impressively," she said. "I feel grateful to be able to go to work and feel safe."

Students are tested twice a week, and between students and employees, some 45,000 tests have been administered since late August.

"Until very recently it's been very effective," Paolella said. 

But in recent weeks, she said, some students seem to have become lax about masking, in part because Maine's numbers were low for so long, and in part, perhaps, due to what has been called "Covid fatigue."

On Halloween weekend, Paolella said, about 20 people gathered for a party near her backyard.

"It was just clearly people standing close together and drinking with their masks not on," she said. Evidence of other parties has appeared on public social media pages.

"I'm seeing more and more students getting [casual], not wearing masks appropriately," Associate Professor Michael Rocque posted on Twitter Nov. 5. "It's easy to get complacent but we all have to remain vigilant if we want to make it through. Let's go."

Then on Nov. 6, hundreds of students gathered outside Coram Library for what was deemed by The Bates Student as "a socially distanced protest" of a Bates College Instagram post featuring the president of the Bates College Republicans, and subsequent banning of online comments.

Also recently, the Bates athletic department gave the cross country team permission to run closer to each other than the 14-foot limit previously in place, said Paolella, who is also captain of the school's cross country team, said 

"It's six feet or closer with the understanding that there are more stringent measures like taking temperatures at the beginning of practice, filling out a form [about any symptoms], and with the knowledge that if someone tests positive, everyone gets contact traced."

On Nov. 5, after three students tested positive with no apparent common source, Joshua McIntosh, vice president for campus life, wrote a letter to students urging them to remain vigilant—or potentially find themselves quarantined on campus through Thanksgiving.

McIntosh urged students not to travel off the campus until they leave for the November break, and to otherwise refocus their efforts on minimizing risk.

Today, with 62 students in quarantine after being in close contact with someone who had tested positive, Pols said, "Josh just wanted to impress that we have to follow Maine CDC guidelines. [Students] can't just say, 'I feel fine, I'm going home.'"

Pols said he would have sent the letter regardless of the five positive tests on Monday,  given the overall increase in cases in Maine, particularly outbreaks at the Androscoggin County Jail and the Russell Park Rehabilitation and Living Center, just across the street from the Bates athletic complex.

Less than a week later, McIntosh wrote again to students, asking them to limit close contacts and to communicate with professors, the Department of Student Affairs, and the Bates Testing Center before leaving campus earlier than November 24, the last day of classes.

But Paolella said, "A lot of students have left between yesterday and today after receiving a negative test result Monday or Tuesday, and wanting to head home rather than risk getting a phone call that they'd been in close contact with someone who had tested positive.

Paolella said students aren't necessarily afraid of testing positive for COVID-19, "but definitely the majority of students are concerned about being contact-traced and being in a room for the next two weeks" and missing flights home or even Thanksgiving.

Pols said she didn't know how many students had already left campus as of Thursday afternoon, but said "a lot" wasn't a fair assessment.

"They can tell us whenever they are ready to go," she said, noting the college wants to make sure students fulfill course requirements before heading home.

McIntosh wrote to students that when they leave for the semester, they should take valuable and essential items with them and pack up everything they leave in case the virus causes the college to determine the spring term will be remote.

"We definitely felt very protected being in Maine with such low case counts, but we're more aware now," Paolella said. " There's a growing awareness that it's rising really fast. I think it's very possible we will be remote for the first part of the semester if things continue as they are."