Project Restart and beyond: A look at USC’s response to the pandemic

(Illustration by Sami deNicola / Daily Trojan)

As the fall semester comes to a close, students remain scattered throughout the globe, and the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic. 

USC’s online learning, which launched mid-March as coronavirus case numbers rose internationally, has served as an unprecedented challenge for President Carol Folt’s first year at the University. Following USC’s three-day trial of online classes, which was right before spring break, students and faculty did not return to campus. USC Housing and most dining locations remained primarily closed and limited to the public, with the exception of a number of students who were unable to leave.

The USC community initially approached Folt’s time at USC with hope for the future following years of scandal, including the quiet removal of former medical school dean Carmen Puliafito, who allegedly used illegal drugs while seeing patients, and revelations of former campus gynecologist George Tyndall’s sexual misconduct. 

However, Folt is now well into navigating new issues and conflicts that have surfaced with the unprecedented pandemic. New policies and initiatives have formed under her leadership over the last few months, which will carry over to the spring semester as the University continues to navigate decisions based on risk and impact.   

“These actions we’ve taken over the past nine months have been made with a backdrop of anxiety that has gripped the entire world,” Folt told the Daily Trojan at the end of September. “As a university, we are responsible for the safety of 48,000 students and that was at the center of every single decision we made, and we tried extremely hard to be as responsive to students, faculty and staff as we could.”

In an Instagram video from mid-October, Folt announced that the Spring 2021 semester would incorporate online and in-person classes, contingent on approval from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. USC is currently planning to gradually return classes, student activities and other staff and faculty functions on campus when it becomes safe to do so.

Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Charles Zukoski announced Nov. 9 that the University will add five wellness days throughout the spring semester in lieu of a spring break to give students time off from classes. But the uncertainty has left students with a feeling of pessimism, as college life continues to be affected by the pandemic.

“USC is not going to open its gates and go back,” said Marisa Johnson, a senior majoring in English, who is taking a leave of absence. “You know, I’m doubting if it’s even going to be anything close to normal.”

Many universities, including UC Berkeley, Loyola Marymount University and UCLA, have announced that they will conduct most classes online during the next academic period, causing many to believe USC will follow suit. 

Students have said they are fretting over the wait for the final spring semester decision. The last few months have been “jarring,” said Erin Bell, a sophomore majoring in global health. In March, she found herself forced to move out of McCarthy Honors Residential College on one week’s notice, scrambling to pack her things alone. Now, she lives off-campus and continues with her studies online. 

“I think for me personally, it was difficult just because the entire thing was tumultuous,” Bell said. “It was a lot of change that no one could anticipate … like it was this extreme period where I had no control over what I was doing, what I would be doing today or tomorrow or the next day.”

Johnson said she hopes to continue her education on campus when she returns next fall and said she preferred to continue working for the time being.  

“I woke up at like 6 a.m., and I just checked my email out of the blue, and I got the notification that only 10 to 20% of classes were expected to be in person [during fall],” Johnson said, recalling the update from July. “When I saw that, I was like, I can’t do that. I need to take a gap year. I did not enjoy taking online classes this past semester, I was abroad.”

Ripple effects of a pandemic

While fears of the coronavirus pandemic were only beginning to grow in the United States in January, Folt created a team to make daily decisions about COVID-19 response. Some of the decisions revolved around housing and the USC Hotel and whether students would be able to occupy those premises should they need to be in isolation.  

Since March, USC Hotel has been housing students, employees and faculty members in quarantine. Students were urged to return home. In March, emails with COVID-related updates were sent nearly daily and as late as July 1 when the University reversed the decision for a hybrid semester to one entirely online as the case numbers climbed. 

In June, students were told that the University would resume most fall classes on campus, but the University withdrew the decision 12 days before the fall semester started because it did not receive permission from the county to reopen. 

“Unfortunately, a pandemic does not follow any rules and sometimes the situation changes daily,” Folt said. “We had to be nimble and be willing to make the decisions we thought were right at the time and modify if and when circumstances changed. We also had to make sure our own decisions were aligned with state and county health authorities.”

The L.A. County Department of Public Health deemed it unsafe due to the increasing number of coronavirus cases in the area, according to a public health news release from the department.

In an effort to keep up with their studies, students continued to push through and paid an emotional price of the uncertainty that surrounded the pandemic. 

“I just know that it felt like every single day, there was a new email giving us completely different information,” Bell said. “They didn’t always think about the repercussions it would have for students in a physical sense, feeling very unsafe in a situation in a psychological sense, where you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.”

The University also warned students that if they didn’t adhere to social distancing and face mask policies, they could lose campus access and face disciplinary action, according to Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman’s newsletter in July. 

Since August, 169 incidents were reported involving 410 students, Winston Crisp, vice president for Student Affairs wrote Nov. 10 to the Daily Trojan. 122 students were prohibited to enter the campus this semester. 

Huanding Ji, a junior majoring in applied and computational mathematics and biochemistry, said that last semester’s coronavirus procedures were more drastic. Housing restricted guest entries, and the University distributed masks quite rapidly. He currently lives at Gateway Apartments, an off-campus housing establishment, and hopes USC will encourage better procedures among off-campus students as well, such as signs that require social distancing and the use of masks while on premises.  

“Indeed, I don’t know if they’ve done anything other than putting up some signs requiring masks and recommending hand-washing,” Ji said in an email to the Daily Trojan. “They didn’t try to stop the big swimming pool parties, and they didn’t even provide good security.”

During the summer, some students were left to deal with signed leases when the University reversed its decision for a hybrid semester. Students that lived off-campus had to either give up their leases or find someone to take over to avoid penalties. 

“USC has basically said, you know, if you’re off-campus, you’re on your own,” Johnson said. “Because of that, students are at the mercy of private developers in Los Angeles and private landlords. I was really lucky because I was able to find someone to take over my lease who wanted to be on campus and who was going to take classes, but I know plenty of people who didn’t.”

Paving the way back on campus

Folt launched Project Restart in May, a plan to resume operations on campus and reconfigure USC Housing safety rules in light of COVID-19. Through the plan, USC also joined a lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s now reversed decision to require international students to take at least one in-person class to keep their visas. 

Project Restart includes five phases in which the University gradually returns functions and academic activities on campus, while complying with public health guidelines. 

USC is currently in the second phase of Project Restart which includes strict social distancing and face masks on campus and continued online classes. Some functions that require an in-person component have returned to campus since mid-summer and for the fall semester, such as research, clinical education and essential Keck health care. 

“The challenge was always going to be this fall, ‘What is the level of community transmission?’” Van Orman said in a student media briefing Aug. 27. “If the case rates had been lower in L.A. and across the country, then, you know, universities probably could have restarted safely. I think that one of the challenges, and this is why we started online, there’s really no rate of testing and contact tracing that allows people to gather and congregate settings when you have high community rates.”

(Graphic by Chrissa Loukas)

Reflecting on USC’S ‘narrative’ amid COVID-19

Looking back at the last few months, some students have said they have been frustrated with how USC has handled communication. 

While students struggled to adjust to a new norm, students like Bell said they anticipated that USC would have been more helpful. Many students expected a tuition reduction since they were not attending in person and the coronavirus was causing economical difficulties due to furloughs and lockdowns. 

“They gave us this narrative that we would be able to stay on campus, but some things would be closed, classes would be online, and then in reality, they forced us off in this very rushed, in this very disconnected, dysfunctional way,” Bell said. “Then, when we asked for help, they didn’t give it when people asked for reductions in tuition. I know students who were international and couldn’t afford to fly back home.”

While Project Restart is in place, students have still faced challenges with remote learning, such as communication with professors and lack of social connection with their peers.

For most, the transition to the virtual format was completely new and unprecedented and adapting was even more challenging. Carlos Zamora is one of the freshmen  and said adapting to online classes was challenging, but he feels that it is even more difficult to acclimatize to the actual classes due to the difference between high school and college curriculum. 

“My biggest obstacle is trying to adapt to college life from the comfort of my home, where I personally don’t have the most ideal learning environment, juxtaposed by the overall transition from high school to college,” said Zamora, who is majoring in computer engineering and computer science, in an email to the Daily Trojan

Other students such as Johnson valued in-class conversations, and when classes went virtual she said it wasn’t fulfilling her goal to engage with other students and debate on matters that would enhance her educational experience. 

“I didn’t enjoy taking my online classes,” Johnson said. “I was studying abroad in England, and then I had to come back to the United States and finish my semester abroad here. And it just wasn’t engaging. I didn’t really like it.”