COLUMBIA — South Carolina's two largest universities are planning on resuming in-person classes and normal campus activities in the fall, including football, as March 8 marked the expanded eligibility of coronavirus vaccines to most adults in the state.
The University of South Carolina and Clemson University, like other colleges, have offered a mix of in-person and online classes to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. USC even broke up the traditional weeklong spring break into individual days off in an effort to prevent an outbreak from students returning from extended time off.
The schools, however, lost a combined $300 million in revenue because of the coronavirus outbreak, leading to pay cuts, hiring freezes and employee furloughs.
Now, the presidents at both schools said they plan to resume normal operations in the fall with expected lower COVID-19 transmission rates as vaccines become widely available. Starting March 8, an estimated 4 million South Carolinians, or nearly 80 percent of the state's population, are eligible for doses.
The schools have incentive to reopen their campuses more completely after reporting that fall applications are higher than last year and decision letters for many students arrive this month. Clemson is even expecting "modest growth" in the number of students, Clemson President Jim Clements said in a letter.
University leaders have said they must offer an in-person experience to meet the expectations of students attending their schools. Combined, USC's main Columbia campus and Clemson have about 60,000 students.
“Our goal from the very beginning was to safely deliver a world-class education to students, no matter the challenges," USC President Bob Caslen said in a statement. "I’m excited to see that continue with full face-to-face instruction in the fall, as well as a return to the engaging and vibrant campus environment our university is known for."
The state's third- and fourth-largest schools also plan to return to normal in the fall.
Coastal Carolina University will not be able to switch back and forth from face-to-face to online instruction with some classes not offering the live-streaming option, Provost Dan Ennis said March 8.
College of Charleston announced fall class plans in February.
"We anticipate returning to the full array of academic and campus life offerings that are so fundamental to the College of Charleston experience by the time school begins," President Andrew Hsu said in a letter to campus.
In the past week, Gov. Henry McMaster has lifted many of the state's final COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates in restaurants and limits on mass gatherings.
While acknowledging the school was "not out of the woods yet," Clements said that "signs that our aggressive approach to COVID-19 testing and safety protocols has paid off."
Clements and Caslen cited their campuses' positive test rates that were lower than the state average. The schools plan to continue testing while promising more normalcy in the fall, including at football games.
Clements pledged to fill Memorial Stadium for Tigers games in the fall after allowing seating for a limited number of fans last season, like USC.
USC has not announced attendance plans for the football season, but Caslen told The Post and Courier on March 2 that he hopes the Gamecocks can fill Williams-Brice Stadium but that decisions on capacity would be based on state and federal public health guidelines.
The presidents warned class plans could change.
"We will continue to monitor the conditions around COVID-19 very carefully throughout the spring and summer, and we will not hesitate to alter course should the conditions dictate that we do so," Clements said.
Caslen said USC must "remain vigilant."
"As I’ve said throughout the pandemic, our ability to return to normal depends on members of our community doing the right things to protect themselves and others," he said in a statement. "That includes wearing face coverings and getting the vaccine when you’re eligible to receive it."