The University of South Carolina announced Wednesday its plan to resume in-person instruction on the Columbia campus for the fall 2020 semester beginning in mid-August.

In a letter to students, faculty and staff, UofSC President Bob Caslen outlined the strategies the university will employ to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 virus on the campus community while delivering an exceptional educational experience to the more than 33,000 enrolled students at the state's flagship research institution. Full text of the letter is included below.

The announcement follows weeks of focused planning by an interdisciplinary group led by public health, medical and academic experts from across the university. Citing the work of the group, Caslen told the university community the decision to return was based on a number of factors, but ultimately guided by the principle that their safe return is possible when combined with sound public health practices.

"Every step of the way, our top priority is your health, safety and wellbeing. The in-depth, tireless work of the group has given me a new level of understanding and confidence that in-person instruction can safely begin this fall," Caslen wrote. "As we prepare for August, we recognize that we are embarking on a new normal that will demand from each of us a commitment to public health and safety."

The plan announced Wednesday also includes a phased in return of some students, faculty and staff during the summer, while regular summer courses will continue to be delivered remotely. This will allow the university to begin implementing key mitigation measures prior to the full return of all students to the Columbia campus.

Debbie Beck, executive director of UofSC's Student Health Services, said collaboration with experts from the university's Arnold School of Public Health and the School of Medicine will continue through the summer and beyond.

"We know the COVID-19 virus will be with us for some time, but we are incredibly fortunate that our campus has a world-class accredited student health infrastructure that will allow us to respond and adapt if we see new cases," Beck said. "We also will continue to work closely with university, local and state health officials to ensure our mitigation strategies are informed by best practices and designed to minimize risk to our community."

Highlights of the plan include:

· COVID-19 testing available for all students, faculty and staff;

· Comprehensive identification of positive cases and contact tracing;

· An increase in single-occupancy rooms in residence halls;

· A combination of public health protocols, including social distancing for classrooms, lecture halls, social gatherings and sports activities;

· Modified dining options;

· Space on campus for safe quarantine and self-isolation if necessary;

· Strong encouragement of proper social distancing off campus;

· Alternative arrangement for high-risk students and employees

Note: University officials will join President Caslen tonight at 6 p.m. E.T. for a live virtual public town hall for the university community. Click here to tune in to the event. For more information on the university's COVID-19 planning, visit the Future Planning Group webpage and the COVID-19 site.

Letter from President Bob Caslen

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

After weeks of analysis and consideration, and in consultation with the Board of Trustees, I am pleased to report that the Columbia campus of the University of South Carolina will resume in-person instruction in mid-August.

One month ago, I called together a Future Planning Group (FPG) - an interdisciplinary gathering of public health, clinical medicine, academic and staff experts from across the university - to examine how to implement a safe return to campus in August. The FPG has gathered and analyzed data from every operational aspect of this institution and it works closely with public health experts on campus and throughout the state and nation to monitor COVID-19 trends and recommend appropriate measures to implement on-campus going forward. Every step of the way, our top priority is your health, safety and wellbeing. The in-depth, tireless work of the FPG has given me a new level of understanding and confidence that in-person instruction can safely begin this fall.

This decision has not been made lightly. It is informed by the science of our excellent epidemiologists and health care specialists in our planning group, as well as the CDC and the SC Department of Health and Environment Control. It is also made with the understanding of the cost of interrupting or postponing the education of tomorrow's leaders for another semester or year. We have listened to the increasing number of students who have expressed their desire to be back on campus to experience the fullness of academic and student life. Many of these students, if faced with no option other than prolonged remote learning, will elect to postpone or discontinue their education. Finally, as has been the case with all of our actions up to this point, this decision is made with a genuine concern for our community and an absolute commitment to mitigating the future risks to Columbia and our surrounding communities.

As we prepare for August, we are embarking on a new normal that will demand from each of us a commitment to public health and safety. Our epidemiologists remind us that the risks associated with COVID-19 will remain a reality for the foreseeable future, simply because we have neither herd immunity nor a vaccine. With that reality, our purposeful efforts to reduce the spread of the virus through recommended public health protocols will continue as we also bolster our ability to respond to any potential resurgence of cases. Our excellent healthcare facilities and capacity on campus, and the top tier hospitals and available healthcare resources in the Columbia area will enable us to effectively address the needs of our campus community as we move forward. The success of the fall and the continued safety of our community depend, however, on the resolve of each student, staff and faculty member to comply daily with safety and health protocols.

We will begin by phasing in an increased presence on campus this summer of selected populations of students and faculty, even as summer courses remain online. This transitional, phased approach will allow us to test our mitigation measures, pilot our initiatives and further build our confidence and capacity to open our doors to the University community safely in August.

While we would like as many students, faculty and staff members as possible to return in person, doing so would not be mandatory, as we recognize that some would be uncomfortable coming back to campus in August. We respect each person's decision to either return or delay their return, and we will expand our online course offerings to accommodate those who choose to remain away.

For those who are returning to campus, plans for academics, housing, dining and every aspect of student and campus life for the fall semester are being meticulously formed by the FPG and an increasingly broad group of campus leaders. Plans include the following:

· We will have the capacity to test every Student, Faculty and Staff member for COVID-19 upon return the campus

· We have the capacity to sustain a robust testing program throughout the entire semester

· We are reviewing several comprehensive tracing and tracking apps for early and thorough identification of at-risk contacts

· We have designated ample student housing for those who may require isolation and quarantine, and we are putting in place the support services to provide for their meals, education, and other needs

· We will increase on campus single-occupancy rooms in on-campus residence halls

· We will modify our dining practices in order to reduce close student contact in student dining facilities through "grab and go" meals

· We will make accommodations for high-risk individuals and others who choose to continue online instruction with safeguards for protection against discrimination and stigma

· We will follow clear public health protocols, including social distancing within classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms and sports venues, with strong encouragement of proper social distancing off campus

· We will ensure that large class sections will either meet in smaller sections or in online formats and create alternative academic offerings to accommodate safe class gatherings

· We will provide advising over the summer to help all students adjust their course schedules as needed

· And finally, as stated, no student, faculty or staff member will be required to return

The new normal on campus won't be easy but judging by how well all of you have risen to the occasion during the challenges of the last many weeks, I have great confidence in you. Make no mistake, it will take all of us, working together, to keep our campus as safe and productive as possible when we're together again. The student leadership is working to develop its own campaign on social distancing norms both on and off campus and ways to hold themselves accountable. Our mayor and governor have been briefed on this plan and are both in agreement and support, and we will continue to work seamlessly with both the city and the state on their re-engagement plans. I know we will all commit ourselves to following the protocols necessary to protect the welfare of our fellow Gamecocks and the surrounding Columbia community.

Once again, I want to emphasize our excellent healthcare facilities and capacity on campus, and the top tier hospitals and available healthcare resources in the Columbia area that will enable us to address the needs of our campus community as we move forward.

We have a lot to look forward to and must remain focused, determined and agile. This plan, as thoughtful as it is, could change at any time due to COVID-19 developments. We will remain flexible to address how education is delivered if and when the public health environment changes within our community. We will keep you informed in the weeks ahead as we finalize plans for the fall semester. This is the time to recommit ourselves to our own well-being and that of others as we draw closer to joining together again at our beloved university.

Each day as I walk from the President's House to my office and back, springtime on the Horseshoe reminds me that ours is a campus that invites and inspires us to learn and work together. Our University of South Carolina has for nearly 220 years beckoned generations to its hallowed grounds and has survived the Great Depression, two world wars, previous pandemics and countless natural disasters. We are meant to be together and we will gather again, safely.

This evening we will host a virtual town hall event at 6 p.m. to answer as many of your questions as possible. You can join the event by clicking here or by visiting our COVID-19 webpage.