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The Medical Building at the U. of South Carolina at Columbia

Fall classes aren’t scheduled to begin until August at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. But officials are already worried about a recent spike in coronavirus cases among students.

The president, Robert L. Caslen, attributed the cases — an increase of 79 in eight days — to off-campus gatherings in nearby neighborhoods and bars. “That’s concerning,” he said during a town-hall meeting on Tuesday. “It has our attention.”

The university’s flagship campus as of June 21 had counted 204 student cases — a cumulative total going back to March. But in recent days, the count has risen quickly. It was at 125 cases on June 13 and at 174 cases on June 15, Caslen said.

Such an outbreak underscores a harsh reality for colleges as they plan for the fall semester: They can do only so much to control student behavior, especially when students leave the campus.

Other neighborhoods near American campuses have reported outbreaks this summer, too. The Ingham County Health Department, in Michigan, said 34 people had tested positive this month after visiting Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub, in East Lansing, near Michigan State University.

Scores of cases connected to Tigerland bars, near Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, brought a warning of an “outbreak” by the Louisiana Department of Health.

At South Carolina, many students live off campus. The university is working with local leaders on ordinances requiring the wearing of masks and, possibly, curfews, Caslen said. On campus, the university will require masks in the classroom and in some other places.

The university has slowly allowed limited numbers of people to return to campus this month, and officials expect students to resume in-person classes on August 20. (Campus officials have said those who are concerned can still take classes online.)

Over all, the university is aware of 218 cases since early March, including 14 faculty and staff members, with 191 recovered individuals. None of the cases, according to the university, have required hospitalization.

Past the point of “acceptable risk,” Caslen said, the university would disperse and return online.

“I define unacceptable risk as this virus has spread not just on the college campus but off the college campus, into the community,” he said. That would lead to patients’ exceeding hospital capacity and fatalities, he said, and the university would be required to move back online. “Nobody wants that.”

Campus officials do not have a firm threshold for such case numbers or fatalities, said Debbie Beck, executive director of the university’s student-health services, in an email through a spokesman. Local leaders, she wrote, “do not believe the hospital is at risk of exceeding its capacity.”

About 64 percent of more than 1,000 campus plans reviewed by The Chronicle involve a return to in-person classes for the fall semester.

Lindsay Ellis is a senior reporter covering research universities. Follow her on Twitter @lindsayaellis, or email her at lindsay.ellis@chronicle.com.

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