Princeton University officials, like many other education leaders across the region, have had to rethink plans for the fall semester because of the increase in COVID-19 cases. Undergraduate programs will now be fully remote for the fall.
“With deep regret and sadness, I write to update you about our plans for the fall, and, in particular, to explain why Princeton has decided that its undergraduate program must be fully remote in the coming semester,” Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber wrote in an email to the campus community Friday afternoon. “In brief, the pandemic’s impact in New Jersey has led us to conclude that we cannot provide a genuinely meaningful on-campus experience for our undergraduate students this fall in a manner that is respectful of public health concerns and consistent with state regulations and guidance.”
Princeton had previously planned to have first-year students and juniors return at the end of August and stay until just before Thanksgiving.
“We noted at the time, however, that we would continue to monitor the course of the pandemic, and that we might have to change our plans if it worsened. In the weeks that followed, infection rates soared around much of the country, with nearly 2 million new cases reported over the last month. This development had two serious adverse consequences for Princeton’s ability to provide undergraduates with a positive and safe on-campus experience in the fall,” Eisgruber wrote.
“First, the health risks to the campus and surrounding populations appear greater now than they did just a month ago,” Eisgruber wrote. “Reopening efforts in New Jersey and elsewhere have demonstrated how difficult it is to contain the disease. Where schools and universities have started to bring back students, COVID cases have rapidly followed.”
Princeton University employees have worked hard to prepare the campus for the return of students, but Eisgruber noted that the risk of widespread contagion and serious illness remains. “Moreover, even if we successfully controlled the on-campus spread of the disease, transmission rates might rise statewide or in our region. We might then have to send undergraduate students home again or impose exceptionally severe restrictions on their mobility and interaction with one another,” he wrote.
The state has also kept restrictions in place that officials had anticipated easing. New Jersey is still in phase two of Gov. Phil Murphy’s “road back” reopening plan and has not moved to phase three because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases in the state and across the country. New Jersey has also tripled the number of states whose residents must quarantine for 14 days after arriving in New Jersey.
“We believe that Governor Philip Murphy and his administration have skillfully and responsibly managed the extraordinary challenges of COVID-19 and the risks it poses to New Jersey, and we appreciate their attention both to the pandemic and to the complex needs of the higher education sector,” Eisgruber wrote. “New Jersey’s careful approach has helped to keep the pandemic in check, but public health principles and state guidance still limit very substantially what we can do on campus. For example, they prevent or severely constrain our ability to provide several key elements of residential life, including indoor dining, student gatherings, and access to indoor common spaces and gyms. Colleges and universities have not yet received general authorization to teach in-person classes. Moreover, many out-of-state students now face strict quarantine requirements upon their arrival in New Jersey.”
Eisgruber, like the president of the College of New Jersey who announced a shift to all-remote learning there four days ago, noted that the combination of health concerns and restrictions would diminish the educational value of the on‑campus experience, and make that experience confining and unpleasant for students. Princeton officials decided to switch to a fully remote fall program for undergraduates in light of the diminished benefits of an on-campus experience.
The university will continue to accommodate students on campus whose situations make it difficult or impossible for them to return home, along with a small number of students who need to be on campus for their senior thesis research or other work that is essential for their degree programs.
“We continue to hope that we will be able to welcome undergraduate students back to campus in the spring. If we are able to do so, our highest priority will be to bring back seniors in the Class of 2021. We hope we will also be able to bring back additional students,” Eisgruber wrote. “We cannot, however, make any guarantees. We will communicate with you about the spring semester in the weeks and months ahead. Please know that we are doing everything we can to make possible a residential semester in the spring.”
Faculty members and staff have been working to develop new and enhanced online course offerings over the last several months, Eisbruber said. “Though we wish we could restore a residential component to our teaching program, we will now focus even more intensely on making the virtual academic and co-curricular programs as strong as they can be,” he wrote.
Graduate students will still be able to be on campus in the fall. Most programs will also offer remote options for incoming first-year graduate students for the fall term.
“I understand, as do my colleagues, that the news contained in this letter will be disheartening and disappointing. We know that our students very much wanted to be back on this campus. We very much wanted to have you here: you are the life of this place, and we miss you tremendously,” Eisgruber wrote. “We will continue to do everything we can to welcome students back as soon as possible to a campus experience that is both safe and meaningful. We look forward to that day, and until then we will work together with all of you to sustain this special community in the face of the unprecedented challenges we’re confronting together.”