COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina is ramping up warnings after disciplining students for holding parties and ignoring quarantines while COVID-19 cases rise at the state's largest college during the first week of classes.
USC sent letters reminding students that they face suspension and expulsion for violating rules meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
"We are very serious about that," USC President Bob Caslen said during a virtual town hall Wednesday. "We ask students to take responsibility."
The number of active COVID-19 cases at USC rose by 350 percent in the past five days to a total of 189, according to data released Wednesday. All but one of the cases involved students.
There could be more cases since some students are asymptomatic and do not get tested. But a number of students reportedly are getting tested off campus and not reporting positive tests to the school.
The percentage of filled campus quarantine beds has more than doubled to 12.6 percent before the end of the first week of classes, while the percent positive tests among students tripled to 8.8 percent.
A spike in cases was expected as more than 30,000 students arrived on campus, university leaders said. But USC remains at a low risk level based on 11 criteria the school is following — including testing, supplies and quarantine beds. Caslen said he is hopeful cases among students will calm down like they did during the summer after an initial spike.
This week, USC placed residents inside two sororities on quarantine after a spate of coronavirus cases soon after the virtual new member recruiting ended.
Parties off-campus, where 80 percent of students live, are a problem, Caslen said. House parties were expected to rise since the state banned restaurants from serving alcohol after 11 p.m.
Officers broke up four large parties at Granby Mills apartment complex near campus last weekend, he said. Photos of crowds inside apartments and around pools at Granby and Olympia Mills circulated across social media in the past few days.
USC reported 97 COVID-19 positive tests on Monday alone after the first weekend since classes started, Caslen said.
The university has placed a number of students on interim suspension after reports they violated gathering or quarantine rules, school spokesman Jeff Stensland said. He did not provide a total of the students facing discipline.
USC is the only large college in the state offering some in-person classes. The others started with online-only classes while seeing if COVID-19 cases continue to drop statewide.
The school still plans to have an in-person fraternity recruitment starting Labor Day week, receiving approval for the mass gathering as mandated under an executive order from S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster. Other in-person student organization events are planned.
Hoping to avoid further growth in cases, the school has sent stern warnings that students face consequences for hosting large parties. Gatherings off campus are not supposed to exceed 50 students, while on-campus housing now allows just groupings of up to four.
"While behavior on campus during the first week of classes was encouraging, there were a number of alarming incidents last evening involving large gatherings with alcohol, vomit in stairwells, and hospital transportations due to alcohol poisoning," April Barnes, USC's housing director, wrote to families on Saturday, just two days after classes started.
"Be advised that incident reports involving large gatherings, events with alcohol, and/or lack of physical distancing will be treated by our university office of student conduct as incidents which threaten the health and safety of our community," Barnes wrote. "Sanctions for such incidents include immediate removal from housing and potential suspension/expulsion from the university."
Students accused of violating quarantine orders will be placed interim suspension and will be barred from campus and classes until their cases are resolved, Anna Edwards, associate vice president for student life, wrote in an email sent to students and families on Tuesday. If students are found in violation, they will be suspended and the school will notify state public health officials, who can work with authorities to issue a $1,000 fine and order up to 30 days in jail.
USC Provost William Tate said pandemic is a major character-building exercise for students who must think about the welfare of the community in how they behave, such as by wearing masks.
"Our goal is not just to get students through with great grades and academics," Tate said, "but for them to understand that they're in a broader relationship with other people and that they can make a difference in the lives of other people by operating in certain ways."