Charleston-area college students can look forward to a return to “normal” operations as they prepare for the fall semester.
Throughout the summer, the College of Charleston, the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston Southern University, The Citadel and Trident Technical College have all been evaluating COVID-19 rules and regulations. For the most part, the schools are in consensus: Masks are optional for the vaccinated and the vaccine is highly encouraged for those who haven’t gotten it.
While college and university officials are looking forward to a normal semester, the threat of the virus’ Delta variant looms.
“The Delta variant is scary,” said MUSC Provost Lisa Saladin. “It is hospitalizing younger individuals, particularly in that college-age range.”
If colleges want to be careful, they’ll keep a close eye on the data and encourage students and staff to get the vaccine, Saladin said.
Taking off the masks
As of July, all public colleges and universities in the Charleston area have made masks optional for students and staff members.
A proviso to the state’s 2021-22 budget means that the area’s state-funded colleges — The Citadel, College of Charleston, MUSC and Trident Tech — are all under the threat of losing funding if they require students to wear a mask or get vaccinated.
Those schools are now encouraging unvaccinated students to wear masks indoors or outside while unable to be distanced from one another.
Charleston Southern University is not limited by the proviso. Unvaccinated students at the university are required to wear masks whenever they are around others unless they’re eating or outside. The university is also continuing to require masks in instructional spaces, such as the library, classrooms and labs.
Otherwise, vaccinated students are free to go maskless throughout campus. CSU continues to consider instructional spaces to be high-risk, said Laurel Glover, the university’s COVID-19 infection control coordinator.
“Due to the risk of infection and breakthrough cases, we do anticipate that many of our fully vaccinated community members may choose to continue masking,” Glover said. “We respect their decision to do so.”
While the public schools are not able to require masks, that doesn’t mean they will completely go away. Students at MUSC will continue to wear masks in all parts of the hospital, regardless of their vaccination status.
A push to vaccinate
None of the schools in the area are requiring a vaccine for attendance in the fall, but as cases of the Delta variant of the virus rise, the schools are pushing students to get their shot.
Both the College of Charleston and Charleston Southern are providing a set of incentives to students who choose to be vaccinated. At the college, students will be able to look forward to a block party if 90 percent of the student body is vaccinated.
At Charleston Southern, vaccinated students are able to enter into a raffle to win up to $5,000 in tuition credit.
The incentives aren’t the only benefit for students who are vaccinated. At the College of Charleston, students who are vaccinated will have a much less complicated experience than those who aren’t.
The school is requiring unvaccinated students who live on campus to provide a negative COVID-19 test prior to moving in. Those students will have to quarantine when exposed to the virus and are encouraged to be tested monthly.
The college is also asking every student to upload their vaccination status to a college-run portal. The information will help the College of Charleston adjust its protocols if cases start to rise.
At MUSC, 75 to 80 percent of students have been vaccinated. Around 900 of the school’s 3,000 students are required to be vaccinated because they participate in clinical rotations at the hospital, Saladin said.
Even with such high numbers, Saladin said, the university is concerned about the virus spreading from faculty members to their young children who aren’t able to be vaccinated.
A return to the classroom
As the fall semester approaches, university and college professors are looking forward to seeing students back in the classroom.
While most schools have been operating in a hybrid model with some classes online and others with limited in-person classes, that won’t be the case in the fall. Charleston Southern, College of Charleston, The Citadel and MUSC plan to have full capacity in-person learning with 3-foot distancing between students.
Trident Tech has not released information about classroom capacity.
The opportunity to be in person and interact with faculty and peers is invaluable to student education, Saladin said.
“What our students have been telling us all year is that you don’t develop the same kind of relationship with your instructor and faculty member (online),” Saladin said.
While the colleges and universities are excited for the return to normal instruction, all are looking to the data to inform their decision. No institution’s plans are set in stone and could change if cases of the Delta variant or any other strain of COVID-19 rise.
Follow Libby Stanford on Twitter @libbystanford.