USC announces phased return for voluntary team workouts

A red graphic used as stock for the sports section.

The USC Athletic Department announced its format for student-athletes to begin returning to campus for voluntary workouts Tuesday. The plan comprises three phases, the first of which kicks off Wednesday with returning local athletes permitted to start a mandatory pre-participation process that includes coronavirus testing.

Phase two of the plan will allow returning non-local student-athletes — defined as those outside of a one-hour commute to campus — to begin the pre-participation process. The target date for the commencement of phase two is July 6.

The third phase, targeted to begin July 13, allows new and incoming student-athletes to begin the pre-participation process. Ensuing phases will not begin until the previous phase has been successfully completed.

The pre-participation process for all student-athletes returning to campus will also include a coronavirus health and safety protocol information session, USC’s TrojanLearn training module, the signature of a risk and shared responsibility acknowledgement form and their typical physical. Student-athletes must be cleared by USC’s athletic medicine staff after completing the pre-participation checklist, and they will be tested for the virus on a weekly basis after the first.

The initial phased plan is limited only to football, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, men’s water polo, men’s basketball and women’s basketball student-athletes. Target dates and specific protocol for the return of student-athletes from other sports have not yet been determined.

“We approached this process with extreme patience, prudence, and the utmost regard for the health and safety of our student-athletes, taking time to learn from the experiences of our peers to refine our plans and processes,” Athletic Director Mike Bohn said in the press release announcing the plan. “After a devastating few months, we are thrilled for them that they will be able to come to back to campus to do what they love and continue their preparation for their upcoming seasons.”

On-campus housing facilities will be available to student-athletes during the latter two of the initial three return phrases.

The voluntary nature of the workouts means that student-athletes will not be required to participate in the return plan and will not face financial aid consequences for opting out. Bohn said the department is fully supportive of student-athletes’ decisions whether they choose to partake in the voluntary workouts or not.

Access to athletic facilities during voluntary workouts will be limited to essential personnel such as strength coaches, trainers, equipment managers and facilities and operations staff — all of whom will undergo coronavirus testing.

Social distancing and hygiene guidelines at athletic facilities will be strict: Student-athletes and staff must complete a daily questionnaire regarding coronavirus symptoms before leaving for athletic facilities, and upon entrance, they will be required to have their temperature taken, wear face coverings, social distance, sanitize hands frequently and wear a wristband to signify they have been approved to enter the facility.

Student-athletes will be required to park vehicles and store personal belongings in individually assigned areas at facilities, have laundry washed regularly and receive personal water bottles, towels and meals for use each day. Capacity at the McKay Center weight room will be limited to eight student-athletes, and equipment will be sanitized following each group’s workout. Student-athletes must make an appointment if they wish to access the athletic training room and meetings with coaches outside workouts will be held virtually through June.

USC Student Health and the Athletic Department will partner to conduct the coronavirus testing. Anyone who tests positive must isolate according to Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidelines, with Student Health providing quarantine housing. Individuals must be cleared before returning to athletic facilities, and USC’s contact tracing will require anyone who has come into contact with affected individuals on campus to quarantine.

“The reality is that we expect to have positive tests and outbreaks in our university community, including in Athletics,” Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said in the press release. “We have been very thorough in planning for such occurrences and to prevent the spread of the virus.”

The Athletic Department will establish guidelines for off-campus student-athlete activities during the restart plan, and administrators and coaches will work to enforce such guidelines. Student-athletes must always comply with social distancing protocols, wear face coverings when in public or with another individual, refrain from collecting in groups and immediately report symptoms, among other expectations.

“Those returning have a responsibility to protect our community at all times, not only when they are working out,” Bohn said. “We expect them to adhere to all standards and restrictions in our restart plan so that their fellow student-athletes and our entire community remains safe and healthy.”

In early June, the Athletic Department conducted a survey to allow student-athletes to voice their opinion on returning to campus for voluntary workouts. USC held individual meetings with unnamed student-athletes, several of which President Carol Folt attended. Head football coach Clay Helton also hosted an information session for his players and a forum for them to raise questions and concerns about returning to campus, along with a webinar for the parents of USC football players.

Along with Director of Sports Medicine Dr. John Brodhead, Van Orman and the University developed the plan in adherence to the LACDPH’s guidelines as well as NCAA and Pac-12 recommendations and protocol before it was approved by USC administration members.

The NCAA is allowing mandatory organized activities to begin July 13 for football and July 20 for men’s and women’s basketball. Dates for other sports have not yet been announced.

The return plan is tentative and subject to change based on the tenuous nature of the coronavirus pandemic.