As cases spike in SC, Clemson stays course to resume in-person classes this fall
This story was updated on June 19 to include information on the University of South Carolina's reopening plans.
Clemson University officials have reaffirmed their decision to resume in-person instruction in the fall, but have not announced when the majority of employees can return to campus as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Since Clemson launched its three-phase reopening plan on June 1, Pickens County has seen more than 130 new cases of COVID-19, according to an analysis of State Department of Health and Environmental Control data.
As of June 17, Pickens County had a reported 323 cases of the virus since announcing its first known case in the county on March 20, according to DHEC.
The increase in cases is attributed to poor social distancing efforts and increased testing efforts, according to DHEC.
One of the main benchmarks for the university to move into phase 2 of reopening — which would bring back a larger number of faculty and staff members ahead of fall classes — is a 14-day decrease in new cases in Pickens County and surrounding counties. But since Phase 1 launched two weeks ago, Pickens County has reported between two and 23 new cases of the virus every day, according to DHEC data.
"What we've seen over the last two weeks is the numbers trend in the wrong direction in the state of South Carolina. And so we are going to continue to be deliberate about our plan to return people," university spokesperson Joe Galbraith told The Greenville News and Independent Mail.
'Not an immediacy' to bring employees back to campus
As cases rise in the area, Galbraith said Clemson is going to keep campus mostly empty in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus ahead of the fall semester, which is set to start August 19.
"There's not an immediacy for bringing some people back right now," he said.
Galbraith said no date for Phase 2 has been announced, but employees will be given at least seven days' notice if they are to return to in-person work.
So far, the Clemson area has retained a low count compared to Greenville of reported cases, but numbers have begun to increase since restaurants were permitted to reopen in late May.
The highest concentration of COVID-19 in Pickens County is reported in the Easley and Powdersville areas, which are the closest municipalities to Greenville County, according to DHEC's ZIP Code map.
DHEC data for neighboring Oconee and Anderson Counties shows cases of the virus have been steadily rising, but not at the same rate as Greenville County, which was designated a hot spot for the virus in early June.
In ZIP codes with Clemson addresses, 30 cases were reported as of June 15.
Earlier this week, two downtown Clemson bars closed after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus — a notable sign the virus has reached the heart of the small college town.
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Adjustments to work, class expected for fall
Since announcing they're "laser focused" on a full return to campus in April, Clemson has maintained its promise without providing details on what daily life and football games will look like.
Clemson sophomore Deasia Rush said she isn't sure what the semester will look like, only that she is confident she will be on campus.
"I feel like they'll require us to be more safe and probably wear masks and whatnot... they're definitely going to try and bring classes back this fall whether cases keep rising or not, because of football," Rush told The News.
Clemson has not announced any restrictions for the 2020 football season. Student-athletes could return to campus for training June 1, the same day the university launched Phase 1. Galbraith said social distancing at tailgates and in Memorial Stadium are part of "daily conversations" the university is having about COVID-19 planning.
On campus, three student-athletes tested positive for the coronavirus, but Galbraith said it's impossible to know the spread of the virus in the wider Clemson community.
"We're utilizing DHEC data currently on positives (for COVID-19). But because we don't have any residents on campus, there's no way to really know the spread in our population. ... It's hard to get that accurate data until we have more robust testing in place in our area and further develop the contact tracing processes that are underway," he said.
Since early June, South Carolina has outpaced much of the nation in new cases of coronavirus — a spike experts attribute to eased lockdown restrictions, isolated outbreaks and the pandemic reaching rural corners of the state, according to a report from USA Today.
Because of this, the bulk of Clemson's employees will continue to work from home, Galbraith said.
Excluding contracted workers, Clemson employs about 5,500 people at about a dozen campuses and centers statewide, according to 2019 data.
As employees return to work, they are being encouraged to wear protective face masks, limit contact with other employees and practice social distancing, according to guidelines posted to Clemson's website.
For those who live and work in the Clemson area, campus' reopening may signal an uptick in positive cases of the virus.
Jared Douglas, a Clemson hospitality worker and student at Tri-County Technical College, said he fears that thousands of students returning to the small town in August will cause an increase in cases.
"I only worry about the elderly population that lives here. The college kids I do not think care whatsoever. So that's my worry because they're going to same grocery stores that that older people are going to, or immunocompromised people are going to," Douglas said. Ten percent of Clemson's population is 65 or older, according to 2019 Census estimates.
But for now, Clemson workers will stay home — a decision that comes two weeks after Greenville County, the neighboring county to Clemson's main campus and the home of CU-ICAR, was declared a hotspot for the coronavirus by DHEC.
Clemson has campuses in multiple counties across the state, including Anderson, Greenville, Greenwood and Charleston counties. Decisions on moving to Phase 2, then Phase 3, may look different at each campus depending on health data and expert advice, Galbraith said.
"Things might look different in Charleston or in Greenville than it does at Main Campus (in Pickens County)," he said.
E-learning still in play
But, Clemson's commitment to returning to in-person classes in the fall doesn't necessarily mean a return to pre-pandemic learning.
The school will also use a hybrid of eLearning and in-person instruction to keep class sizes down and reduce gatherings of large groups, Provost Bob Jones told The News in May.
Clemson student Morgan Molosso said she and her friends look forward to a return of in-person instruction, but she hopes students aren't required to wear protective face masks while in class.
"I don't know how I'll be able to focus with a mask on," she said.
Clemson has yet to release guidelines for students returning to campus this fall, but students may be socially distanced in classrooms, Jones said.
But not all students and employees are eager to return to campus.
Another Clemson student, Katie Burdick, adjusted her schooling plans to avoid the possibility of on-campus classes this fall.
Burdick, who is immunocompromised, said she's finishing her degree major classes online this summer so she doesn't have to worry about crowded hallways or tightly packed classrooms in the fall. She'll complete an all-online degree minor to finish her studies, she said.
"My advisers were super helpful to help me find a solution with my health and schooling so I can stay on track," she said.
The university will allow students and employees who may not be able to return to campus this fall if they're medically vulnerable to work and study remotely, Galbraith said.
"It remains too early in the process to provide exact numbers, but our Office of Student Accessibility Services has received some requests, as has the Office of Human Resources, and both are working with individuals to identify needs and solutions," Galbraith said of students and employees who need to stay home.
Burdick said she hopes to see Clemson offer more online or hybrid in-person-online classes next semester for medically vulnerable students, "who want the option if they are concerned about returning like I am."
UofSC lays out testing plans, students to wear masks in classrooms
At the University of South Carolina, university leadership is laying out stringent testing plans and protocols to bring students back to its Columbia campus this fall, according to a June 19 presentation to the board of trustees.
President Caslen said the school is closely monitoring the spiking number of reported COVID-19 cases in the state, and planning for a similar volume of cases when students and faculty return in mid-August.
"We anticipate going throughout the fall with conditions similar to we have right now," Caslen told the board.
Here's a few ways UofSC will approach those conditions:
- The university will test every employee and student within 10 days of the semester starting for COVID-19 with on-campus lab facilities
- Require face masks in certain classrooms and buildings
- Implement an alternative schedule for classes to go virtual after Thanksgiving
- Launch a joint city-university awareness campaign aimed at teaching students responsible off-campus behavior to keep residents safe
While the school is implementing strict measures on-campus, Caslen said a source of concern is students' off-campus behavior and how it may impact Columbia, which has a population of about 130,000 people, according to Census data.
"We have suspected all along that the primary risk of our student population is their social life off campus, and what we're seeing is demonstrating that," he said.
While Clemson officials said they are not able to track the number of cases in their community, Caslen said UofSC has had a total of 180 cases of COVID-19, 162 of which were off campus.
"We're seeing positives in what we call clusters, which are primarily small groups of friends that are living together. And they have common exposure, which includes a friend or a dating partner or parties, some pool parties or house parties," Caslen told the board.
Richland County has seen a reported 2,446 cases, but has a lower per capita rate of infection than Greenville County, according to DHEC.
In Phase 1 of its reopening plan right now, UofSC has a targeted launch of Phase 2 on Aug. 20, according to Caslen.
"The key to this phase is that students and faculty can return if they so choose."
Caslen said 33% of faculty — 737 employees — are uncomfortable with returning to campus in the fall and will not be expected to teach in-person, according to the report to the board.
Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @zoenicholson_