USC students adapt to uncertainty of pandemic life around campus

Students living on campus and off campus balance their safety from COVID-19 and their desire for social connection.

The first week into his return to USC as a residential assistant for Cale and Irani, Jacob Pettis, a senior Media and Practice major, sensed “mixed vibes” at the campus community.

“It feels like people are wanting to find some kind of community within the parameters of COVID-19,” said Pettis, as he saw a lot more people in personal protective equipment (PPE) hanging out in small groups but also people without masks walking around in the USC Village and dining at Rock & Reilly’s.

About 700 students are currently residing in USC housing, more than half of whom are graduate students living in off-campus family apartments, Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman told Annenberg Media in an interview Tuesday. Housing has been limited to students who demonstrated exceptional needs, as the Los Angeles Department of Public Health prohibited the university from allowing any other students to live on campus. As of Aug. 29, the USC Health Center completed 4,818 tests with an 8.1% and 4.4% positive rate among students and employees, respectively.

After traveling to Los Angeles from his hometown Oklahoma City, Pettis waited for about four to five days before getting tested last Friday. His results came back negative on Saturday night. Within USC housing, residents have to get tested weekly for COVID-19, Pettis said.

“I’ll probably just fall into a rhythm of like, get tested, wait for my results, be negative,” he said. “I’ll try to see if any of my other friends have been recently tested and do a social distancing hangout.”

“While we were requiring [the test] for students who live in housing,” Van Orman said, “we’re encouraging it for all students, particularly people who are living in larger settings [like] one of the fraternity houses where you have 10 or 15 roommates or in a house with multiple people, to get tested every week.”

Van Orman said the Keck Hospital’s lab has a limited supply of testing reserved for people who are symptomatic or have been directly exposed to the virus. “We use a slightly different testing vendor that is much quicker to get the results.”

She also encouraged students to have “really serious conversations” with their roommates, “because the challenge is whatever your roommate does is your risk. And those are hard conversations.”

Rae Weiss, a USC sophomore living in Gateway, said despite the mass emails the building sent that warned against gatherings of more than 10 people and stressed the need to wear a mask, some people have been ignoring it.

“Quite frequently, like every other day,” Weiss said, “there are just like a gaggle of maskless boys in the courtyard playing beer pong or like downing White Claws or whatever.”

Weiss has been doing group Facetimes and Zoom calls with her friends who are not in Los Angeles. “It’s not the same as being on campus, being together in person and going to the dining hall after class. But it’s as close as we can get it,” Weiss said.

“It’s really about finding things you can do and then forcing yourself to enjoy them,” she added.

USC hosted the Dornsife Virtual Roommate Launch event in August that matched Dornsife students with their virtual roommates to participate in activities and get to know each other. Acts2, a student organization at USC not affiliated with USC Housing or USC Residential Education, is hosting a Zoom Hall for virtual roommate registration this Friday.

Pettis expected the attendance of floor meetings to drop this semester. “I think a lot of people are kind of fatigued with just being in virtual spaces constantly. One concern I have is like, how sustainable is this practice going to be throughout the remainder of the semester?”

“I think what’s so challenging about being an R.A. during this time is the ability to connect with residents,” Pettis said. “How we create authentic connections with incoming residents or incoming students, and how we make them feel included.”

Van Orman recommends students to sign up for COVID-19 Pop Testing here or call 213-740-9355 (WELL).

Correction made September 2, 11:22 a.m.: a previous version of the story incorrectly stated “pop-up testing” instead of “Pop Testing.”