News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, January 28, 2021
MMA applies rigorous testing for spring semester

by Eli Forman

Students are returning to town this week amidst a strict protocol of testing, quarantining and distancing as Maine Maritime Academy prepares to begin in-person classes on Monday, February 1.

According to Dr. Elizabeth True, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, every student must provide a negative test result prior to returning to campus and will then be tested again upon arrival, self-isolating pending results.

Students who must fly back to Maine will quarantine for several days before being tested, allowing for any possible exposure during travel to register before joining the rest of the student body.

Both the several day wait for students who fly and the required test prior to arrival are extra steps taken this spring, with the latter to help identify possible asymptomatic individuals and allow them to quarantine at home rather than traveling to campus, said True.

“Our strategy in the spring is building on the lessons we learned in the fall,” said True, adding, “we had focused on testing and quarantining the students from beyond Maine in the fall and then we ended up having a couple Maine residents who were asymptomatic positives.”

MMA uses the Polymerase Chain Reaction testing method in partnership with Jackson Lab and Northern Light Health.

“Because we do the PCR test for the entry level, it’s much more likely to pick things up earlier,” said True.

Students have already completed two weeks of remote instruction and will conduct the rest of their semester on campus, approximately two and a half months.

“The other strategy with that was to get [students] to really try to hunker down for the two weeks of remote learning and treat that almost as a self quarantine period,” said True.

True also noted that upon examining the cases from last fall, it was determined that small social events involving only several people, rather than large gatherings such as parties were mainly responsible for virus spread.

“Taking your mask off and eating and drinking seems to be the way it’s spreading,” said True.

To address that, True and her colleagues will be focusing their messaging on encouraging students who wish to see their friends to do so outside in areas where proper distance can be maintained.

“Instead of eating with these three people at lunch today and these three people at lunch tomorrow, try to stick with the same group,” True said.

Students will also be asked to limit travel and to self report if they must travel so that they can be tested upon their return.

“Travel in itself is not always the issue…if you go to York or Cumberland [counties] and are hanging out with 25 friends from high school we want to test you,” said True.

So far, students have responded well to the safety measures, recognizing their necessity and demonstrating a commitment to a successful semester.

“[Students] just want to do whatever it takes to stay on campus,” said True, adding “they understand [the virus] is here and all around them.”

To that end, MMA also plans to focus more on student’s mental health this semester, building off the challenges that faced incoming freshmen in the fall as they negotiated a radically curtailed social environment.

True says that additional, safe activities are planned for students, outside recreation will be encouraged and the “12 ways to 12 weeks” program has been adjusted to reflect personal health.

On a wider Castine community level, the prospect of another in person semester has met with a mostly positive response, said True, after MMA demonstrated its commitment to safety and transparency with its rigorous protocol and reporting last fall.

“They understand we’re doing everything we can to contain it and not have an impact on the town,” said True.

Training cruises get tentative go-ahead

For the regimental program, a successful semester means one step closer to training cruises. Usually the culmination of the program, the training cruises held on MMA’s training ship the State of Maine provide necessary hours and experience for students to achieve their unlimited United States Coast Guard licenses.

According to Capitan John Cashman, Commandant of Midshipmen, two different cruises are planned upon the completion of the semester.

“A large part of that is to make up for the lost cruise opportunity last summer,” said Cashman.

According to Cashman, the first cruise will begin mid-April and the second in early July.

“We’re feeling very comfortable that with the testing that we’ll be able to do on campus we’ll be able to move students and faculty on board the ship feeling relatively assured that the virus is not on board,” he said.

Both may be shorter than usual, but partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and other Maritime Academies “allows us to get the training requirements in,” said Cashman.

Although at this time Cashman does not anticipate port calls, “we will steam into different harbors so they get the experience of navigating through some of our busiest harbors on the east coast.”

Cashman also pointed out some academic silver linings to the increased distancing and smaller group sizes, especially in the regimental program which relies so heavily on in person instruction.

“A lot of what the students are gaining are individual and small group leadership opportunities,” he said.

As the semester gets under way and with a vaccine on the horizon, both True and Cashman described an overarching sense of optimism on campus.

“Spring semester always has [a sense of optimism] because you’re going from the shorter days and colder weather into the warmer days, celebration, end of the year,” said True.