USC will continue mostly online classes in spring due to coronavirus surge

Students return for the first day of academic instruction for the fall 2020 semester.
Students return for the first day of academic instruction for the fall 2020 semester.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

USC will likely continue to hold classes almost entirely online during the spring semester as coronavirus cases continue to spike in Los Angeles County, the school announced Friday.

“We regularly meet with county health officials in our efforts to return to some in-person learning,” Provost Charles Zukoski wrote in a letter to students.

“In our most recent discussions, it has become increasingly clear that conditions are now likely to require that we begin the Spring semester with the same online and remote instruction that we’ve had during the Fall, with no additional students in our residence halls.”

School officials had hoped to bring 5,000 students back into campus housing for the spring semester, which begins Jan. 15, and had teams working to prepare classrooms, develop cleaning protocols and create a testing and contact tracing strategy.


But late last month, L.A. County public health officials began to report an uptick in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, indicating that transmission of the virus is on the rise. The county reported 2,481 new cases of the virus Friday, and there were 966 confirmed coronavirus patients in county hospitals as of Thursday.

A travel advisory issued Friday encourages Californians to stay local and avoid nonessential travel, and asks those who arrive from another state or country to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“The current surge in COVID-19 transmission in L.A. County is alarming,” Barbara Ferrer, the county public health director, said Friday in a statement urging people to take precautions and to refrain from traveling for the holidays. “If we act now, we can prevent increasing rates of illness and death, stressing our healthcare system, and further stalling our recovery.”

The increase mirrors a trend seen across the United States, which notched record-high numbers of new coronavirus cases several days this week. In California, the number of weekly coronavirus cases has doubled in just the last month, prompting health officials to issue a new advisory urging residents to quarantine when returning from travel out of state.

Friday’s announcement marked the second time that USC’s reopening plans were dashed by a surge in coronavirus infections since the school transitioned to online learning in March.

The university had initially planned to bring all undergraduates back to campus during the fall semester, which began Aug. 17, for a mix of online and in-person classes. But it was forced to reverse the decision in July, when new cases and hospitalizations in L.A. County reached the highest levels seen during the pandemic.

Instead, school officials announced, only 10% to 20% of courses would be conducted in person and on campus, including certain labs, studios and performance classes, and research studies that require hands-on work. Students who needed to live on campus were permitted to do so, provided there was only one student per bedroom.

In the letter Friday, Zukoski wrote that USC officials remain hopeful that more students might be able to return to campus for in-person and hybrid learning at some point later in the spring semester. The school is also hoping to offer more on-campus activities and to reopen libraries, research labs, tennis courts and swimming pools, pending the approval of health officials, he said.

Even with limited campus operations, USC reported an increase in coronavirus cases among its students and employees earlier this month.

The school had recorded 29 active cases as of Nov. 6, compared with a low of eight average weekly cases two weeks before that, Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer for USC Student Health, wrote in a memo to students.

The number of cases still remained lower than in late August, when two weeks into the fall semester, there were 43 cases reported over a one-week period. All of them were related to students living off campus, USC said, where many students remain in private apartments and houses.

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In many cases, Van Orman wrote in the most recent memo, the virus was transmitted “through close contact with just a small number of people — small gatherings with family and friends, study groups, and travel.”

L.A. County public health officials also have blamed small gatherings as a major driver of the countywide surge, saying that people have tired of coronavirus restrictions and resumed old routines, including visiting family members and friends.

The “COVID fatigue” is apparently being felt even by government officials. On Friday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom was forced to issue a statement responding to a San Francisco Chronicle report that he and his wife had attended a Nov. 6 dinner with other households at the French Laundry, a pricey Napa Valley restaurant, to celebrate the birthday of his political advisor.

“While our family followed the restaurant’s health protocols and took safety precautions, we should have modeled better behavior and not joined the dinner,” Newsom said in the statement.