USC aims to have ‘normal opening’ for fall semester, relaxes COVID-based requirements

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The fall semester at the University of South Carolina will feel more like 2019 than 2020.

While students, faculty and staff will be required to submit evidence they’re free of COVID-19 before returning to campus, masks won’t be required in classrooms or academic buildings, mandatory monthly testing will cease and sporting events will be held at full capacity with tailgating.

The university is still strongly encouraging mask wearing, physical distancing and regular testing for unvaccinated students, but those mitigation measures won’t be mandated.

“We’re gonna try to have what I would call a normal opening,” USC College of Pharmacy dean and interim provost Stephen Cutler said Friday. “Obviously, it’s not going to be as normal as what we were doing pre-pandemic, but we’re going to try to get as close to that as we can.”

The state’s largest university, which enrolls more than 50,000 students across its eight campuses, notified students and employees Friday of its COVID-19 protocols for the fall.

USC will not mandate coronavirus shots for students or faculty, but the college is asking members of the campus community to roll up their sleeves.

“The vaccine is not mandatory,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said, “but we’re doing everything we can to convince students and faculty to get it.”

As of Monday, roughly 12,500 students had submitted documentation of their vaccination and another 1,000 or so additional students continue to upload their vaccination cards each week, interim director of University Health Services Jason Stacy said.

“We are assuming that we’re gonna get ... a large number of them that upload their cards at the last minute,” he said.

The university isn’t yet able to calculate the percentage of vaccinated students because enrollment figures remain in flux. Faculty vaccination rates are higher than students’, officials said, but were also not immediately available Friday.

Stensland said late last month that preliminary data showed nearly 80% of USC faculty and staff had been inoculated.

Public SC colleges can’t mandate vaccines

The university made the call not to mandate vaccines on the advice of its public health experts, but officials wouldn’t have been able to require the shots for students even if they had wanted to.

The South Carolina Legislature made the decision for state-funded colleges and universities in June when it passed the budget with a provision prohibiting them from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of enrollment, attendance at on-campus instruction or residence on campus.

Only two private South Carolina schools, Wofford College and Furman University, are known to be requiring student vaccinations. Whether they’re legally permitted to do so remains an open question.

“The law is ambiguous and could be argued either way,” state Attorney General spokesman Robert Kittle said Friday. “Trying to answer that question would require a formal opinion from our office, which has not been requested.”

As recently as last month, some schools, including USC, had planned to mandate monthly coronavirus testing for unvaccinated students, but officials reversed course after state Attorney General Alan Wilson weighed in.

Wilson informed College of Charleston President Andrew Hsu earlier this month that the school’s policy requiring COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students likely violated state law and urged him to revise it. The college could encourage vaccinations, he said, but needed to clarify that students who decline shots would not face punishment or adverse consequences.

“As state law makes clear, the decision to be vaccinated from COVID-19 is a personal decision,” Wilson wrote. “As a result, no state institution may mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or retaliate against those that choose not to receive a vaccination.”

College of Charleston immediately revised its policies at the attorney general’s request to ensure their compliance with state law, spokesman Michael Robertson said.

Kittle said Wilson had been in contact with other colleges about their proposed COVID-19 testing policies, but had offered formal guidance only to the College of Charleston.

Cutler, USC’s interim provost, said Friday that the university would follow the laws promulgated by the General Assembly or governor and heed the opinions of the attorney general.

“We’re going to operate within those boundaries and we’re gonna use the mitigation strategies we’ve developed as best we can within those guidelines,” he said. “What we’re gonna do is, for those we can’t mandate, we’ll strongly encourage people to exercise some of those strategies so that we can ensure that everyone else has an opportunity to enjoy as traditional of an academic experience as we’re able to provide.”

He said the university would actively monitor the impact of COVID-19 in the classroom and at a campus-wide level, and was open to making adjustments over the course of the school year, if need be.

“We feel confident that if we see a flare up, one that needs a quick shift in the modality of how we provide the education to our students, we can do that very comfortably because of the experience that we’ve had,” Cutler said. “But for right now, it’s face to face, and then we’ll monitor what’s going on in each classroom as well as across the campus.”

A return to normal, with an incentive

While most of USC’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies are no longer mandatory, the university will still require all visitors to wear face masks in its health services areas and counseling center, and on campus public transportation.

USC also will continue to follow federal and state guidelines related to quarantining and isolating COVID-19 cases on campus, meaning that fully vaccinated individuals who have been exposed to the virus won’t be required to isolate unless they’re showing symptoms. The university will provide some on-campus quarantine locations for unvaccinated students who have been exposed to the coronavirus, but not as many as last year when it rented out an entire hotel to isolate students after exceeding its on-campus capacity, Stensland said.

All students living on campus must provide the university with a quarantine plan in advance of moving in that specifies where they would go if they tested positive for COVID-19 or came in close contact with someone who did. The vast majority of students who have submitted the plans are choosing to return home to quarantine, Stensland said.

USC students and employees who wish to be tested for COVID-19 or vaccinated against it may do so on campus.

Researchers at the university’s College of Pharmacy last year developed a saliva-based coronavirus test that was used to provide regular surveillance testing on campus and will remain widely available, officials said.

“We were one of only five universities to develop a saliva-based assay last summer. And we used that to open the University of South Carolina,” Cutler said. “We think it was one of the key components for how we opened a safe and healthy environment.”

Students also can get vaccinated on campus, and in fact, University Health Services already has administered shots to nearly 10,000 students, officials said.

In the coming weeks, the university plans to roll out a COVID-19 vaccination incentive program to encourage students to roll up their sleeves. The details of the incentive program, which is called Garnet and Vaxxed, are still being finalized