COVID-19 cases around campus surge as criticism of wellness days rises

Despite efforts from the university’s administration to deter student travel, an increase in positive cases brought on by travel to popular spring break locations might call into question the effectiveness of wellness days.

Following a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases at USC linked to international and out-of-state travel, some students are disappointed with the university’s choice to replace spring break with wellness days. Some think the loss of spring break was in vain, as other students continued to travel in past weeks, bringing the New York and UK variants of the coronavirus back with them.

Many said the wellness days are not a suitable replacement for a break and are feeling burnt out from continuous online school work in the absence of an extended break.

USC Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman announced the recent surge in cases in an email to the USC community on March 24. Van Orman told Annenberg Media in a briefing on March 25 that the university hopes the rise in cases will subside within a couple of weeks, but USC will continue to closely monitor the number of cases among students.

“Some of the variants are more infectious, which is why we may be seeing an uptick. I think we’re going to continue to see outbreaks when people kind of violate the health rules until we have a much, much, much greater number of people vaccinated,” Van Orman said.

Van Orman also mentioned that despite the cases almost doubling in the past week -- from an average of 22 cases two weeks ago to 39 this past week -- the school cannot enforce the 10-day, state-mandated quarantine on students, as many live in private off-campus housing.

“If someone -- whether that’s a faculty, staff or student -- travels and they don’t quarantine and they come on campus and we know about it, then they’re subject to discipline,” Van Orman said. “But it’s very difficult for us to know what people are doing.”

She also noted that the school was not expecting such a degree of travel during wellness days, but that in the end, the number of cases would have probably been higher had there been a spring break.

Students like Nathaniel Hyman, a senior majoring in public policy, initially supported replacing spring break with wellness days as a matter of public health. However, some said they now feel wellness days have not served their intended purpose: students are still traveling out of the state, and the individual days off have not relieved school-related stress.

“I think that wellness days are technically a good idea if they serve their purpose,” said Hyman. “That means teachers need to actually respect them,” referring to professors scheduling midterms or assignments due dates for the day before or after a wellness day, meaning that students may have to work during their day off.

Trinity Gomez, a junior studying communications, said she had a project due on a wellness day. However, she said her professors have been lenient enough to reschedule assignments.

In addition, some wellness days are on Fridays, when many students do not have classes.

“It couldn’t have been designed to reach fewer students; it couldn’t have been designed worse, honestly,” said Hyman. Hyman is not the only student frustrated.

“I do not think that they were that helpful at all, especially because one day in the middle of the week isn’t going to solve everyone’s workload problems or stress or well-being,” Gomez said. “We end up just using it as a day to catch up on work.”

Matthew Eck, a double major in health and human sciences and English, expressed frustration with the mental health toll the lack of spring break has taken on students.

“In my classes, you can just notice the fact that students are less likely to participate just because the room is permeated with exhaustion. Everyone talks to professors in my classes about how burnt out we feel,” said Eck. “We still have to study, we still have to [work on] assignments for classes later in the week, in a way that you wouldn’t have to if you actually had a spring break.”

Eck is also disappointed with students whose traveling may endanger the community and reflect poorly on the school, especially when others have been making sacrifices. Hyman, who knows students who have traveled to tourist destinations in Mexico specifically, agrees with the sentiment.

“I think I just totally underestimated how little empathy and how much greed so many students have,” said Hyman. “That they would go to a country which is struggling to vaccinate its population, is struggling to provide health care to its citizens, so that they can recreate.”

Students who return to housing near USC are returning to a neighborhood with a mostly Black and Hispanic population. Studies have shown these communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The COVID-19 mortality rate was two to three times higher for Black and Hispanic residents of Los Angeles than for white Angelenos.

“It’s not something that just affects the person who goes to [Mexico.] It’s not about your individual freedom. It’s about how much you care about others, and if the university, as an institution, cares about the South Central community, it needs to do something to demonstrate it,” said Hyman.

According to the CDC, all travelers should avoid going to Mexico, as the COVID-19 levels in the country are “very high.” Additionally, Mexico is the leading country in COVID-19 mortality rates, proportionally with population, with a mortality rate of 9%, compared to the rate of 1.8% in the United States.

USC was not the only school to cancel spring break and see students across the nation travel during their days off. 60% of colleges removed the break from their spring calendar this semester, according to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. Reports of chaos in Miami Beach amid spring breakers prompted a citywide curfew and the declaration of a State of Emergency.

If you traveled during the past days, the USC Student Health Division strongly recommends that you adhere to the state-required 10-day quarantine and schedule a coronavirus test within the first three to five days of re-entering California.