Princeton University undergraduates to return to campus and surrounding community starting Jan. 15

About 3,400 undergraduates at Princeton University want to return to the campus and the surrounding community for the spring semester, school officials said during a virtual meeting with local officials on Monday.

Usually, Princeton University has 5,300 undergraduates enrolled, but school officials said this academic year, only about 4,600 undergraduates are enrolled. Students were given the choice of returning to campus or continuing to learn from elsewhere.

The spring semester will run from Feb. 1 to the end of May, but some students will begin to arrive on Jan. 15. Student arrivals will be phased in, school officials said.

Treby Williams, executive vice president of the university, said all graduate students were back on campus in the fall, as well as about 200 undergraduates. Graduate students had some in-person courses and research resumed, while all undergraduate learning was online. Undergraduates who are on campus are tested for COVID-19 twice a week at a campus lab, and graduate students, staff members, and faculty members who are on campus more than eight hours per week are tested once a week.

The new COVID-19 testing lab can’t be used beyond the university for the local community because the school’s license to operate the facility is limited to the university community, Williams said.

Williams said school officials learned more about COVID-19 during the fall semester, monitored what other colleges and universities are doing, and built the COVID-19 testing lab on campus. These factors and others led university officials to decide to invite all enrolled students back for the spring semester.

“Asymptomatic testing, combined with contact tracing, restrictions on-campus gathering, and disciplinary action for failure to comply seem to be a successful formula employed at other institutions,” Williams said.

Each student living on the campus will have a separate sleeping space, and some dorms have also been reserved to serve as an isolation space. Williams said all students will be tested for COVID-19 when they return to campus, and will either quarantine for 10 days or self-isolate if they test positive for the coronavirus. They will be tested twice a week after the initial test.

Returning students must sign a social contract. As part of the contract, they must agree to get regular COVID-19 testing, wear a mask, practice social distancing, not have guests in dorms, and comply with restrictions on travel and gatherings. The social contract covers students living both on campus and off campus. Students who violate the rules will be disciplined.

“There will be undergraduates living in the local community. We don’t know how many yet or where. We will have more information in January. Those who live in Mercer County and Plainsboro will be subject to the same restrictions. As I said earlier, the restrictive environment will not be attractive to all students,” Williams said. “We are enabling people to not come to campus. Every class will have a remote component.”  

Williams said school officials are making it clear that if a student is not willing to abide by restrictions, the student should stay at home and take courses remotely. Many students want to be on campus even though all undergraduate courses are being offered remotely. Some of them live in another time zone, while others want access to the library. Some desire faculty interactions or want engagement with other students, even if that involves masks and social distancing, Williams said.

A New York Times article published on Dec. 12 detailed how COVID-19 related deaths in communities that are home to colleges and universities have risen faster than the rest of the country. Williams dismissed many of the concerns in the article as it relates to Princeton, saying the article did not distinguish between universities like Cornell that have rigorous testing programs and other schools. She also said the article didn’t look at communities with reasonable restrictions in place. She added that Princeton has no medical school, and very few students work in the surrounding community or in long-term care or hospital settings. She also said in-person classes and campus events are not tied to the spread of COVID-19, but fraternities and sororities are. Princeton does not formally recognize fraternities or sororities. It does have private eating clubs that are the center of social life for many students. Williams said the eating clubs will remain closed for the spring semester. She also said Princeton University students make up a much smaller percentage of the population in the community than at the schools referred to in the New York Times article. She said at Princeton, there has been no cross-transmission of COVID-19 between students and faculty. She added that a professor at New York University has questioned the data for the New York Times article.

Williams said Princeton University is promoting a culture of “community caretaking” that officials are committed to perpetuating thorough the semester.

Students living locally will have the opportunity to also study on campus. “Just to be clear, we do anticipate students will rent properties in the local community,” Williams said. “They would have to be part of the testing program and sign the social contract.”

Rochelle Calhoun, vice president for campus life at Princeton, said school officials will be vigilant in requiring all students living on or off campus to sign the social contract. “This (contract) gives students access to the campus with the exception of residential halls,” she said, adding that some unenrolled students are living off-campus in the community, but they are not allowed to host enrolled students. “It benefits us a great deal if community partners alert us to any violations or perceived violations,’ she said. “Just let us know if there is a household we need to visit or violations we need to investigate.”

Calhoun also said staff members will be patrolling campus zones and neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Eve Niedergang asked about procedures for communicating about violations in an atmosphere she described as “the secret police reporting on people.” Calhoun said that depending on the behavior, the school’s approach is to get students to correct the behavior. “If that’s not possible, then a more serious response and disciplinary action are needed…(but) we want to reassure neighbors in the community that we don’t want to get students in trouble.”

Spring break has been shortened to three days in March, and any travel must be approved, school officials said. Once on-campus and off-campus students arrive for the semester, they are not allowed to leave unless travel is approved.

University officials said projections and modeling show that a high of 50 students could need to be in isolation at any one time. A worst-case scenario would be closer to 100 cases. Depending on the case numbers, the university could implement various strategies such as more frequent testing, changing the way food is served, more limitations for on-campus events, and restricting mobility between the campus and the community. The university has its own infirmary to treat students. A student would be transferred to an area hospital if the student needs a greater level of care. Princeton University officials said so far, no students have been taken to hospitals due to COVID-19 complications.


  1. If the majority of students actually practice social distancing/mask wearing off campus, I’ll be gobsmacked. Because they mostly failed to do so in the past. I can’t imagine this being good for townspeople this particular winter. But, I hope I’m wrong.

  2. This is something we the people of the town should protest. Yet another example of how the for-profit, non-profit University does not give a shxxt about us the townspeople or anything other than their bank accounts full of $… To bring in thousands of people – to increase the town 10% -more than 10 % with people from all over the country in the midst of the pandemic. Also another example of how the gov let’s Princeton U do whatever they want … Why would it be OK to do this? To bring in all these folks from all over the country into the community in a pandemic? Just to make sure they can collect their tuition? It puts everyone in the community at risk who is already here…

  3. How bad an idea this is during the height of the pandemic has been well documented =

    It is another example how multi-billion dollar Princeton – our non-profit with multi billions of dollars in savings and surplus cares more about $70k in tuition of one rich kid … than the lives of the people in its own community… The town/gown balance of power needs a recorrect ASAP. Princeton U is a monster. There is no science or intellectual or academic reason to do this now either so they also loose a lot of credibility as an academic institution …

  4. “Oh that study that showed how COVID-19 related deaths in communities that are home to colleges and universities have risen faster than the rest of the country? Yeah that doesn’t apply to us.”

    This is reckless. The college I attend, which is a major university in a major city, had to suspend classes 2 weeks in because the students were all having parties despite their “social contracts” and promises. And now Princeton students are going to be living within the community because there aren’t enough rooms for them on campus? No thanks. You can access the library online. And different time zones? I get that, but also, take a different class. Looking at my course options for Spring 2021, I can take classes as early as 8am or as late as 8:45pm. I think you can figure it out.

  5. People who are concerned about the virus should take personal precautions themselves. One cannot ask young people to take a hiatus from their lives for more than a year.

  6. Should we read anything into this coming from Willams and not Eisgruber? One would think this decision would be communicated from the very top.

  7. There are plenty of examples of universities that have managed this well with a strict testing protocol such as the one that Princeton will follow. Also, there are hundreds of students who have been living in town since August and the graduate students and select undergraduates have been living on campus all semester. They don’t seem to be the source of the recent increase in infections in town.

    The people whom I most often see breaking protocol appear to be townspeople, not students. While some off-campus students do have parties amongst themselves, it is more common to see maskless townspeople drinking and dining inside local restaurants and gathering at home with small groups of family and friends, which is where most of the increase in cases is coming from nationwide. We’re more likely to be exposed via the son or daughter of a neighbor or friend who has just come home from their college and is getting together with their friends. As George said, take your own precautions and you should be fine.

    Caveat for anyone working in places that allow indoor dining and other prolonged indoor activity. If the return of students means more people are inside your establishment, then by virtue of the fact that it can travel through a poor ventilation system, you should take more precautions. How many people currently complaining are in this situation?

Comments are closed.