BAR HARBOR — Like the local elementary schools and high school, College of the Atlantic made a quick, emergency transition in March to distance learning. Most students left campus at the end of the winter term and all spring classes have been in online formats.
And also like the local schools, planning at the college for what instruction in the fall will look like requires juggling a lot of unknowns, developing contingency plans and being prepared to adapt quickly.
An emergency response team at COA is tracking local, statewide and national information on the coronavirus pandemic and working with regional emergency preparedness and response groups. They’re also consulting with Mount Desert Island Hospital and the local research institutions for guidance.
“We want to be in person and on campus in the fall for our students, but we recognize that that’s not going to be possible for everyone,” President Darron Collins said.
A quarter of COA’s students are international, coming from 55 different countries. They may face travel restrictions or trouble getting visas approved. Other students have health concerns that would make living and studying on-campus dangerous for them.
“Students, generally speaking, because of their age are more resilient,” Collins said. “But we have to think very carefully and cautiously about our staff and faculty who are older,” and about the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island community.
“So we know there will be this cohort of students, staff and faculty who will not be on campus,” he said. It will certainly be “a hybrid scenario.”
College officials worried that a number of students would take leaves of absence in the spring term, but “by and large, that didn’t happen,” Collins said.
“Our students trusted the (school) to come up with a spring term that was going to be different but still have elements of the COA special sauce in there. I’m super proud of the way faculty, staff and students came together in a crisis and completely reimagined the curriculum over the span of two weeks.”
Collins said the pandemic has accelerated trends in higher education that were already underway. Costs continue to rise and fewer families can afford them. And, since families started having fewer children after the 2007-2009 recession, colleges will see a smaller cohort of 18-year-olds in the next several years.
“I predict that even though this pandemic will force many colleges to go online, and probably force some colleges out of business entirely,” he said. “I believe there will actually be an increase in demand of students who want a small, cooperative, interdisciplinary, project-based approach to learning.”
COA was founded partly in an effort to create new economic opportunities for Mount Desert Island, and it’s now well-positioned to be part of a community response to the new challenges brought by the pandemic.
“Nothing has thrown a curveball like this since the Fire of 1947. It’s going to require our community to really take a different look at things,” Collins said.
“The pandemic is the perfectly wicked human ecological problem,” referring to the college’s area of focus. “Economically, epidemiologically, behaviorally — we were made to respond to this kind of situation.”