Saying undergraduate students overwhelmingly want to return to campus — and that the college has the on-campus testing to ensure their safety — Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber announced Tuesday morning that all undergraduates will be allowed to return for the spring semester, which starts in February.
The students, however, will return a far different campus than the one they left — hurriedly — last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to overwhelm the country.
Each student will have their own bedroom, will have to agree to testing — and will have to sign a social contract stating they will abide by social distancing restrictions.
The vast majority of classes will be taught virtually, with some having an in-person hybrid option. Only a select few classes — intended to enable international students to meet a requirement — will be taught in-person only.
Eisgruber said he expects approximately 75% of undergraduates (approximately 3,000-4,000) will join the approximately 1,250 graduate students (and small number of undergraduates with certain circumstances) who were allowed to return this fall.
The decision came after receiving strong interest from undergraduates regarding the possibility and after observing life at universities that allowed undergraduates this fall. The fact that Princeton was able to open its own on-campus testing site played a major role in the decision, too.
“We have been looking over the course of this semester at how best to simultaneously serve the educational interests of our students, and appropriately respect public health principles for the spring semester,” Eisgruber said.
“We believe, based on the experiences on our own campus and on other campuses that have put in place similar kinds of measures, that we can operate safely and provide our students with some important aspects of their educational experience with this preparation in place, despite the ongoing pandemic. And, obviously, we’re well aware of that rates of infection are rising in the country and in the state of New Jersey.
“We believe with this extensive testing and with public health measures that we will have in place, that we can operate safely. It will be a far different campus from the one that students left in February.”
New restrictions on social distancing, mask wearing and limited public events will be in place, Eisgruber said. And the school, he said, will clearly communicate that following these guidelines is not an option.
“One of the things that we’re going to make very clear in our communication to our students is that a choice to come to Princeton for the spring semester is a choice to accept a very significant set of limitations and a very significant set of responsibilities,” he said. “We want students to consider that choice carefully. Some of them may decide — I think some of them should decide — that they would be happier studying remotely.
“But, if they come to our campus, they’re going to be subject to significant restrictions about masking, about social distancing, restrictions on visitors, restrictions on travel.”
Eisgruber said the school has been in constant contact with Gov. Phil Murphy’s office and the state Department of Health. They have offered support for Princeton’s plan, he said.
“I don’t want to speak for them, but I think the governor’s quite supportive of the idea that we need to operate carefully in the current environment, with all sorts of protocols in place around dining, social distancing and making sure that we’re operating residential life safely,” he said.
Eisgrurber 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.
“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,” he 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.”
While much has been made surrounding the financial impact COVID has had on higher education, Eisgruber said finances or revenue did not play a role in the decision.
“Not only Princeton, but all the other universities and colleges I’ve been dealing with, have been making these decisions based on judgments about two things — which are the educational interests of our students and the public health principles that are relevant not only to our university community, but also to the surrounding communities,” he said.
“Yes, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to work that into your budget. And, fortunately, at Princeton, we have a significant degree of flexibility about how to do that.”
Eisgruber said he does not anticipate any issues with compliance by students, who have been strongly urging a return to campus under any situation.
“We heard from our own students and confirmed from experiences of students and other campuses that, even with these limitations, there is an important benefit to residential education that many of them, at least, want,” he said. “They want to be surrounded by a group of other people who are sharing in the studies that they are pursuing and who are part of their friendship and support networks. And that matters to them, even with all the restrictions that go with social distancing and the elimination of lots of social events that would otherwise be common in college life.”
Eisgruber also said the recent news on potential vaccines — while welcomed — had no impact on the decision.
“The vaccines are welcome news for all of us, in they give us a sense that there’s an end of the tunnel and that we can glimpse the light,” he said. “From our standpoint, there’s still a huge amount of uncertainty about when you’re going to get to vaccination. Some of the predictions are especially encouraging, but we also know that there are huge logistical difficulties in place.
“So, we are telling our students right now that, when you come to campus in February, we’re going to be in a period when, obviously, all the public health restrictions that we’re currently dealing with will still apply.
“And then, what we have said is, we hope that, for a variety of reasons, including warming weather, of which we can be relatively confident, and maybe the availability of vaccines, things will get better over the course of the semester.”
Princeton, Eisgruber said, will be ready to adjust as needed.
“Right now, I don’t think that there’s enough certainty about the dates by which people will have been vaccinated for us to change any planning on that basis,” he said. “It’s obviously something we look forward to.
“It’s the kind of adaptation that we are eager to make after having had to adapt again and again to bad news. We’re ready to go when it comes to adapting, put it that way.”