November 25, 2020

Princeton University Undergrads Will Return to Campus in February

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton University has invited all its students back to campus for the spring semester beginning in February. Between 3,000 and 4,000 students, about 75 percent of the undergraduate population, are expected to accept the invitation, with the others choosing to continue remote learning for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

In an announcement yesterday, Tuesday, November 24, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber emphasized that the Princeton campus in February will be far different than it was a year ago before the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposition of restrictions and public health measures. The creation of an on-campus testing laboratory and a rigorous testing protocol are also important parts of the University’s plan.

Most teaching will be virtual and online, Eisgruber added. Some classes may be offered in a hybrid format, but no courses are expected to be purely in-person.

Noting the need to serve both the educational interests of the students and public health issues, Eisgruber emphasized that numerous health procedures would be in place and that the University would be “fully in compliance” with state protocols and guidance from local health officials.

Masking and social distancing requirements will apply throughout the campus. All students living on campus or in the Princeton area will be required to participate in the University’s coronavirus testing program. Parties and most other social gatherings will be prohibited. Students will be prohibited from hosting visitors and will be restricted from traveling. All returning students will be required to quarantine upon arrival on campus. Students will be housed in single bedrooms, one-to-a bedroom. High infection rates may require all or part of the campus to be locked down for extended periods.

“We are confident about our ability to operate safely, even in difficult circumstances, with this plan,” Eisgruber said at a Tuesday morning press conference. Acknowledging the challenges in the current environment statewide and across the country, he continued, “I am confident that even if, as we anticipate, we continue to have high infection rates, we can operate safely on this campus by acting on the basis of the best public health guidance as we have been doing.”

Eisgruber pointed out that, even with many limitations and restrictions in place, there is an important benefit to residential college education and, according to a University survey taken about three weeks ago, most undergraduates agree and are eager to return to campus.

About 1,650 graduate students have been present on campus this fall, but only about 250 undergraduates out of about 4,500 — primarily those with housing issues, trouble getting home, or inability to study remotely.

In a November 24 letter to the Princeton University community, Eisgruber outlined the stringent requirements for students to consider as they decide whether or not to return to campus in February. “The safety of our campus, and the communities around it, will depend on vigilant compliance with public health guidance,” he wrote. “Protecting our individual and collective well-being will require the commitment and cooperation of everyone who elects to come to campus in the spring.”

He continued, “We want to make sure that all of our students appreciate the challenges associated with residential life during a pandemic. A choice to return to campus is a choice to accept limitations and take on new responsibilities.”

Eisgruber expressed hope, but no guarantees, that with possibilities for vaccines and warmer weather in the spring, “there will be opportunities to increase interaction, and to phase in more activities, as the term progresses.”

As it looks forward to welcoming thousands more students back to campus, Princeton University announced Monday that it would be opening a new COVID-19 testing laboratory to support the extensive testing program that has been in place since August for students, faculty, staff, and researchers on campus.  The laboratory will allow increased testing capabilities with faster results.

The lab is designed to run at least 2,000 individual samples per day, 10,000 per week, with turnaround time of 24 hours or less and the possibility of increasing capacity by pooling samples, according to a press release from the University’s Office of Communications.

“The goal is to identify positive cases early enough — before people have been able to spread the virus to others — so as to isolate the cases as soon as possible and stop community spread and prevent outbreak or clusters,” said University Health Services infectious disease physician Irini Daskalaki as quoted in the press release. “We depend on regular testing to catch people early, in the presymptomatic or asymptomatic stage, because actually that’s when they are most infectious.”

Early last spring Princeton University made the commitment to build and seek a license for its own testing laboratory both to support its ability to function with large numbers of people on campus and to contribute to the testing capacity in New Jersey.

The ensuing process involved construction, permitting, purchasing equipment, designing a data system, hiring and training skilled staff, and acquiring the necessary governmental approvals.

The University lab gained federal Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification on September 3, permitting the testing of samples for COVID-19 and the distribution of test results to the individuals tested. The lab was officially licensed by the New Jersey Department of Health’s division of Public Health and Environmental Laboratories on November 6.

“The leadership of the University very early realized that if we were to have any semblance of a normal community, with people repopulating and enlivening our campus, we would need to have a testing program,” said Daniel Notterman, physician and University lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology. “Princeton stood this lab up in six months —that’s remarkable. It makes me proud of the University.”

Princeton is one of only a few universities in the country without a medical or veterinary school to build a federally-certified COVID-19 testing lab.

The lab uses saliva samples for testing rather than nasal swabs, and the University’s medical staff recommends the saliva samples as being as accurate as the deep nasal swabs and more accurate than the shallower self-swabbing common at drive-through testing sites. The saliva sample can also be self-collected, reducing the need for personal protective equipment and protecting health care providers. 

Notterman, a pediatrician, added, “I’m very motivated, not only to help protect my students and my colleagues and staff at the University, but also to work with all of the wonderful people here to help protect the larger community by keeping the level of infection at the University as low as possible.”