April 7, 2021

COVID Count at PU Stays Low With Strict Protocol, Restrictions

By Donald Gilpin

As colleges and universities across the country struggle to educate their students safely and effectively in the second year of COVID-19, Princeton University, which welcomed back to campus about 2,800 undergraduates at the end of January, is carrying out its multi-faceted response to the pandemic with considerable success.

An asymptomatic testing program for all regularly on campus, symptomatic testing for students, contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation, along with a mandatory social contract for students which outlines expectations for their adherence to COVID safety protocols, are all essential elements of the University’s effort to move forward safely.

So far, Princeton University, which publishes information on COVID testing results daily on its COVID website, has avoided the kinds of outbreaks that have disrupted a number of other campuses throughout the country.  With contact tracing, conducted in close coordination with the municipal public health office, the University can pursue the identification of any potential case clusters.

The Princeton University COVID-19 Dashboard for April 6 at covid.princeton.edu shows a positivity rate of just .09 percent for asymptomatic testing during the previous week. That’s 11 positive cases, 1.57 per day, out of 12,426 tests, well below the rate for Mercer County and New Jersey as a whole.

“Countless hours of careful planning and hard work went into preparations so we could invite all undergraduates to return to campus for the spring semester,” said Deputy University Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss.

Almost every aspect of campus has been modified in the interests of safety, compliance with state requirements, public health guidance, and University COVID policies, Hotchkiss noted. Though most students are on campus, almost all undergraduate instruction remains virtual this spring, with only a few courses being offered in a hybrid format.

“The University continues to follow public health best practices for avoiding spread of COVID-19,” Hotchkiss pointed out. “Most faculty and staff continue to work from home, and the campus remains less densely populated with a range of modifications in place to facilitate
social distancing. Masks continue to be required.”   

Princeton University continues to encourage all members of the community to get vaccinated as soon as they become eligible, though students must abide by the protocols even after they have been vaccinated. The University plans to resume a fully in-person program in the fall of 2021, but has not yet decided whether a COVID-19 vaccine will be mandatory for students at that time. 

The University has been prepared to be a vaccine distribution site, “ready to vaccinate members of the University community if the state allocates vaccines to the University for that purpose,” said Hotchkiss, but “the University has not received any vaccine and does not know when it will receive any.”

Looking ahead, Hotchkiss noted that the campus COVID policies, including masking and social distancing, would remain in place at least through the summer. “Our goal for fall 2021 is to resume a fully in-person residential program, prioritizing teaching and research, and informed by public health guidance. Returning to in-person operations in all of our activities will be a complex process guided by public health experts, state regulations, and logistical realities. Some restrictions will undoubtedly extend into the next academic year.”

Hotchkiss reported that because most  students have been cooperative in adhering to the rules imposed by public health guidance and the social contract, Princeton has been able to avoid the kinds of spikes in COVID cases and the unsafe behavior that have necessitated additional restrictions at many other colleges and universities.

Social contract violations from September 1, 2020 to March 25, 2021 that have been resolved include 87 resulting in disciplinary probation, with 14 of those students barred from campus; 15 resulting in reprimands; and 37 resulting in warnings, according to Hotchkiss.

The social contract deems violations involving quarantine and isolation, hosting unpermitted visitors in on-campus residences, and hosting prohibited in-person gatherings as “significant,” resulting most often in serious disciplinary action and barring from campus.  Some other offenses include failure to comply with testing protocols, failure to follow proper travel protocols, entering buildings where access was restricted, failure to secure late arrival permission, and failure to adhere to face-covering and social distancing policies.