At Princeton, ability to test students on-campus twice a week is key to allowing undergraduates to return in spring

The ability to test every undergraduate student twice a week — or more, as needed — was a major factor in Princeton University’s decision to invite all undergraduate students backs to campus for the spring semester, which will start in February.

Princeton President Chris Eisgruber made the announcement Tuesday morning.

Eisgruber said students overwhelmingly have said they want to return to campus — even with the restrictions that will come with the return. Having a testing program in place on campus made the decision easier, despite the fact the announcement comes as COVID-19 cases are rising dramatically around the country, leading to lockdowns of various intensities.

Princeton President Chris Eisgruber. (File photo)

Eisgruber said Princeton’s on-campus PCR laboratory will be able to process 10,000-15,000 tests a week with a turnaround of 24 hours or less, which would allow Princeton to test its entire student population multiple times a week if that’s what is needed. The college also has created a dashboard to update its status. (Here’s a link to more about the lab.)

“We’re going to run a campus with a set of testing protocols that go far beyond what’s applicable to most populations, and with a set of very careful public health principles,” Eisgruber said. “So, students on the Princeton campus can be assured that they will be operating consistently with a set of public health protocols that the governor is asking everybody to respect.

“And, obviously, we will make sure as we go forward when it comes to February that we are not only fully in compliance with the state protocol, but operating in a way that I think will be a model. And our goal is to have lower infection rates than areas around us.”

Eisgruber said the school has been in constant contact with Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration. He said the governor “is supportive of the idea that we need to operate carefully in the current environment.”

This fall, the campus has been open to graduate students (approximately 1,650) and undergraduates who have housing and/or visa challenges that made it necessary for them to stay (approximately 250). Those students have been tested twice a week, with Eisgruber reporting they have a lower infection rate than the surrounding general public.

Eisgruber said Princeton expects 3,000-4,000 students to return to school in the spring. Each student will have their own bedroom, though they may be in some residential areas where they share common areas. Should more students return than expected, Eisgruber said the school has contingency plans for additional housing.

The ability to give each student their own bedroom is key, Eisgruber said.

Students, who will have to quarantine upon arrival, will have a place to do so. They also will be able to do so during the semester as the situation warrants.

And, unlike last spring, when students needed to leave the campus when the pandemic occurred, Eisgruber is confident students will remain on campus throughout the spring, regardless of any potential outbreaks.

“We’re now not in a set of circumstances where (an outbreak) potentially means a stay-at-home order in dormitories,” he said.

Other schools, Eisgruber said, have instituted two-week shutdowns if cases started to climb too quickly.

“Our expectation would be that we need to be ready to take those kinds of measures quickly if our testing reveals that there are infection rates that need to be suppressed and brought down,” he said.

Eisgruber said the decision was in no way financially motivated. In fact, he said, Princeton’s strong financial position enabled the school to make the move. Finances, he said, have enabled the school to not only set up testing, but make the necessary adjustments to common areas as well as purchase the necessary PPE.

“Fortunately, our alumni continue to be very supportive of the institution,” he said. “That’s allowed us to do things like saying, ‘If we’re going to get our students back on campus and invite as many of them as we want to invite back, we need to create our own testing laboratory on the campus.’

“And, so, we were able to give the green light to that even in circumstances where we were worried about financial stresses on the budget, and that’s going to allow us to go forward.”

(Here is the video message from Eisgruber.)

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