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USC set to reopen campus, classrooms in fall after coronavirus closures

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The University of South Carolina announced Monday it will require students and faculty to have a negative COVID-19 test before they return in January and will have them take monthly tests during spring semester. File/Andrew Whitaker/Staff

The University of South Carolina will reopen its Columbia campus and resume in-person instruction in the fall. 

Some students, faculty and staff will be allowed to return to the main campus gradually over the summer, USC President Robert Caslen said Wednesday in a campuswide email, even as summer courses remain online. 

This phase-in approach "will allow us to test our mitigation measures, pilot our initiatives and further build our confidence and capacity to open our doors to the University community safely in August," Caslen wrote. 

The plan is to allow students to choose whether or not they would like to return to campus in the fall or continue learning in a virtual format. The university is in the process of bolstering its online course offerings to accommodate high-risk students and those who might feel uncomfortable returning to school. 

USC is the first in the state to announce its specific plans for fall reopening. It was also the first major college in South Carolina to announce a transition to online-only classes, doing so on March 11.

Other colleges and universities across the Palmetto State followed suit not long after, deciding to suspend in-person classes and pushed classes online in an attempt to minimize the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. 

South Carolina as of Wednesday has logged more than 6,900 cases and just over 300 coronavirus-related deaths.

The announcement comes after weeks of planning from the university's Future Planning Group, a team that included dozens of public health, clinical medicine and academic experts. 

“Every step of the way, our top priority is your health, safety and wellbeing. The in-depth, tireless work of the group has given me a new level of understanding and confidence that in-person instruction can safely begin this fall,” Caslen wrote. “As we prepare for August, we recognize that we are embarking on a new normal that will demand from each of us a commitment to public health and safety.”

The campus reopening plan includes readily available COVID-19 testing for all students, faculty and staff; identification of positive cases and contact tracing; and an increase in single-occupancy residence hall rooms.

The university has also designated "ample student housing" for those who might need to self-isolate or quarantine. 

Difficult decisions  

Colleges across the state are grappling with how to safely resume classes in the fall. Many have said they don't expect to release formal announcements until mid-June or July. Nationally, colleges are bracing for a potential enrollment drop caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have implemented temporary tuition freezes, extended application deadlines and waived otherwise mandatory standardized test scores in order to encourage potential students to enroll. 

"I trust the decision that President Caslen and his team has made based on the expertise of the good people they have around them," said Rusty Monhollon, president and executive director of the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.

But USC's early decision doesn't necessarily mean other colleges across the state will follow suit. 

"I really think each campus is going to be a case-by-case decision," Monhollon said. "I don't think reopening campuses is a kind of one-size-fits-all proposition."

Although the goal is for most students to return in mid-August, Caslen emphasized that the success of the plan depends on the "resolve of each student, staff and faculty member to comply daily with safety and health protocols."

When students do return, the way campus operates will look different compared to when students left in March.

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Large classes will either be held in smaller sections or via a virtual format. Dining services will be modified to minimize contact via grab-and-go style meals. 

Recommended social distancing will take place within classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms and sports venues, "with strong encouragement of proper social distancing off campus."

Enforcement questions 

Shelby Beckler, a rising senior journalism student at USC, said she was surprised to learn the school had already made an announcement regarding fall classes. A timeline on the Future Planning Group’s website projected more details could tentatively be released between May 15 and June 15.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this real life?’ And I let out a big scream in my house because obviously, being a senior, that is super important — to be on campus,” Beckler said.

She was ecstatic to learn she would be allowed to resume in-person classes in the fall but wondered how social distancing would be successfully enforced, especially during class changes, when hundreds of students flood campus and the surrounding streets. 

"It’s just a cluster of people all the time," she said, adding, "I'm not scared; I’m excited. But I am more apprehensive for how everything will be handled."

These concerns were echoed by Tess Pratt, a parent of a rising sophomore at USC. 

"Honestly, I'm rather uncomfortable. I feel like we don't know quite enough yet. And I'm surprised by this early of a decision," she said. 

One major point of concern: Health experts and epidemiologists have projected that the U.S. should brace for a second wave of coronavirus cases in the fall. Making things harder, she said, is the challenges to enforcing off-campus social distancing. 

"I think back to my college years, especially the first two years, you don't always make the wisest decisions. ... I can just imagine the big party atmosphere, and all that kind of stuff to where social distancing seems laughable in that situation," she said. 

If a large outbreak occurs on campus, the university will evaluate the situation and evaluate the risk to the surrounding community, Caslen said during an online town hall session Wednesday night. If it gets to the point where officials project that an outbreak can't be contained, the university will have the flexibility to revert to online-only instruction, although Caslen emphasized this would be a last-resort option. 

As it crafted its fall plan, the school listened to the increasing number of students who expressed a strong desire to return to campus, he said. 

"Many of these students, if faced with no option other than prolonged remote learning, will elect to postpone or discontinue their education," Caslen said. 

Some 33,280 full-time students were enrolled at the Columbia campus last fall. At that time, the university also employed 2,354 faculty and 8,303 staff members, said university spokesman Jeff Stensland.

Stensland said each of the college's seven other campuses will make their own decisions for the fall semester based on local conditions. The two-year Palmetto College campuses, including USC Lancaster, Union, Sumter and Salkehatchie, generally follow the schedule of the Columbia campus, he said, but no final decisions have been made yet.  

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