Op-ed: Lots of questions need to be answered when it comes to COVID-19 policies and procedures in the Princeton Public Schools

By Lynda Dodd and Corrine McConnaughy

As parents, educators, and researchers, we believe that all children in the Princeton Public Schools deserve access to full-time in-person learning this year, in the safest conditions possible. Such conditions should conform to evidence-based practices recommended by experts on airborne transmission of highly transmissible viruses, like the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We write to share our concerns, questions, and requests about this academic year’s policies and communications regarding SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, which we hope you will consider, evaluate, and respond to with the urgency appropriate to ongoing pandemic conditions.

Context and concerns

We are grateful that the Princeton Public Schools experienced no significant incidents of in-school transmission of COVID-19 during the 2020-21 academic year when some students returned to in-person schooling after the alpha variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus made an initial sweep through New Jersey. During that time, a sizable portion of the district’s students remained in remote learning and a range of health safety protocols were introduced for in-person schooling in the context of the alpha variant as the target and with lower numbers of students present in school classrooms.  

And yet we are now beginning the 2021-22 school year with classrooms operating at full capacity and a more formidable variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Given the delta variant’s emergence this summer, we are concerned that the district has not provided adequate information to parents and has not demonstrated its preparedness, especially with respect to the safety of unvaccinated children enrolled in the district’s elementary schools.

With less than two weeks before the school year begins, we parents still lack basic information about the preparedness of the school facilities and the plans for managing risks of full classrooms and lunches eaten in schools. Our most recent communication from our schools–the welcome letters from elementary school principals and the district –gave new clarity regarding the obligations placed on parents, including new details of travel quarantines for unvaccinated students and a continuation of the daily health questionnaires. Yet these same letters provided no specific details or assurances of the district’s obligations to revise protocols to account for the higher transmissibility of the delta variant, such as more detailed information regarding HVAC equipment, specifics on lunchtime logistics, or any other mandatory protocols that would be the responsibility of the district, principals, teachers, and staff to implement.

The lack of parity regarding descriptions of obligations in these communications is troubling. Parents have been informed of their obligations surrounding travel, quarantine, and daily reporting. And yet at this point parents are also being asked to send their unvaccinated children into full-capacity elementary school classrooms with no information regarding the district’s ventilation specifications, mandatory protocols, or detailed assurances of ongoing assessments of their sufficiency.

Hoping to fill in what the direct communications lacked, we turned to the district’s webpage devoted to “moving forward with care” in the 2021-22 school year (accessed August 29, 2021). Unfortunately, this page provides no information regarding ventilation. We looked for answers by searching for “ventilation” elsewhere in the Princeton Public Schools website. We found only the following statement: “The Facilities Department has ensured that ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible.” This is not acceptable. A vague statement does not take the place of information on the standards used, the justification for those standards, data on assessments of meeting them, and commitments to a schedule of reassessment. When we next reviewed the district’s website page reporting on the 2019 referendum upgrades, the details provided were again inexcusably sparse. There is no information publicly available on the PPS website on whether and how any of the upgrades have incorporated the ventilation equipment specifications that indoor air quality experts and aerosol scientists advise can help mitigate the transmission of an airborne virus like the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2.

As far as we parents know, the only plans for additional information to parents before the school year begins are for a thirty-minute Facebook session on Tuesday, Aug. 31, from 12:30 to 1 p.m. with the district’s resident physician, Dr. Robert F. Helmrich. We know this plan only since last week, when PPS parents were asked to send questions on a Google Form for the session. Are we to presume that this very brief event is our only opportunity for a public discussion regarding the health and safety of our children? If it is, that fact leaves the – undoubtedly unintended but still unmistakable – impression that district and board leaders do not take sufficiently seriously or remain uninformed regarding the risks that our unvaccinated children now face as they return to school – even in Princeton, a town with a relatively high vaccination rate overall.  


We, like many parents throughout the district, would like assurances on whether and how the district has undertaken evidence-based mitigation efforts to safely limit aerosol transmission in the classroom setting, especially in the four elementary schools where no child will have an opportunity for vaccination for the next several months. We are asking the district to provide public information on all of the upgrades and purchases for each of the school buildings. We ask for details on whether and how they have followed the CDC Ventilation in Buildings guidelines and CDC guidance for schools to reduce exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in each building.  

To that end, we invite the district to provide public responses to the following questions:  

1. Do all building classrooms have access to a MERV-13 equipped HVAC unit? If not, what are the specifications for each location? Are there any rooms in district buildings without fully functional HVAC?  

2. Does each elementary school have sufficient portable HEPA air purifiers to provide two units per classroom? If not, why hasn’t the district used the federal COVID-19 funding to purchase them?  

3. Has the district completed testing to determine the actual air exchange rates in all classrooms? If so, when and what were the results? How often will this testing be repeated? If not, what are the calculated exchange rates for the classrooms? Will these data be publicly available for each of the schools in the district? When and where?  

4. On the basis of what independent, evidence-based rationale did the district decide to purchase “ionizers” in the fall of 2020? Which company manufactured the ionization equipment installed in the district buildings? Given widespread concerns about the safety and value of ionizers, has the district performed air quality assessments in any of the classrooms after these were installed, or is the district relying on manufacturer claims alone? If the district is performing its own air quality assessments, will these tests be made publicly available? When and where?  

5. Is the district planning to provide clear mandates to all elementary school principals and teachers regarding opening doors and windows? Or will there be discretion from room to room? We note that clear mandates enable the entire community – staff and parents – to be prepared to dress themselves and advise their children to dress appropriately so that doors and windows will remain open as long as possible through the fall. If this is a ventilation strategy, has a temperature threshold been established?  

6. Does the district have CO2 monitors in each classroom that can provide real-time information regarding ventilation levels?  

7. Has there been any review of the air flow patterns in the elementary classrooms and/or any training provided to teachers and staff regarding the use of baffles in the open windows or positioning of portable fans to assist with safe direction of airflow in the elementary school classrooms?  

8. Will families and caregivers be provided information regarding the size of their child’s classroom and the spacing between individuals permitted within it? Will the same information be provided regarding the other rooms students will be using throughout the school day and week? Will there be schedules for room transfers in each elementary school to limit congestion in the hallways?  

9. Are there any clear mandates at the elementary schools regarding under what conditions the students will be allowed to eat their meals outdoors? Or will this option be left to the discretion of principals and teachers? When will principals be required to communicate their plans?  

10. Was surveillance testing, or even just reentry testing, of the unvaccinated elementary students in the Princeton Public Schools considered and rejected? If so, on what evidentiary basis?  

11. The district has stated there will be some cohort assignments in the elementary schools. What exactly is being done? Will guidance be provided to elementary school families regarding best practices for extracurricular activities?  

12. Will the district provide a public vaccination dashboard disclosing on an ongoing basis the percentage of teachers and staff vaccinated at each school, as well as the percentage of students vaccinated in each grade level at the high school, middle school, and (later) each of the elementary schools?  


1. An emergency meeting of the Princeton Board of Education this week  

We are asking that the Princeton Public Schools schedule, before the first day of school on Thursday, Sept. 9, an emergency meeting of the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education with the district’s health and safety committee members and Dave Harding to provide more information to parents, caregivers, and the public regarding how the district has responded and will respond in an evidence-based manner to the new challenges we face due to the delta variant. This is an opportunity for the district and board members to share detailed information about the facilities and HVAC upgrades, including a full accounting of what has been done in each building to date, and an opportunity for public comment on the record. We are also asking for live captioning or translations to be provided so that Spanish-speaking families in the district have access to this information in real-time, and that the video of this event be uploaded to the district YouTube channel so that all families may review the recording at their convenience.  

2. An outdoor mask mandate for all crowded settings at the elementary schools  

We ask that Princeton Public Schools follow the best practices in other districts and require masks for parents, caregivers, staff, teachers, administrators, and children during drop-off and pick-up times at all of the elementary schools, given the high likelihood that there will be crowded gatherings at those times including unvaccinated children. Following the advice of experts studying the delta variant, we also support requirements for outdoor masks where it is unrealistic to expect 6 feet of distance will be maintained. This might include times when children will be playing closely together during recess or attending outdoor classes in the district-provided tents on school grounds.

3. Outdoor meals at the elementary schools

Other school districts have mandated outdoor lunch each day for the first weeks of the school year to protect unvaccinated elementary students. Based on the expert advice of aerosol scientists, we ask that the district adopt the same policy. In addition, there should be built-in water breaks, along with a regular snack break, at scheduled times throughout the day so that unvaccinated students will not need to unmask to drink water inside a classroom.  

4. District-provided education and guidance regarding the safer masks and proper use given the delta variant  

Students should be provided with direct instruction and oversight on proper mask usage. Evidence on aerosol transmission also does not support “mask breaks” in rooms with other children present. We ask that the district explain to parents and caregivers that higher quality masks for unvaccinated children are needed for in-person learning this academic year, given that the delta variant has viral loads 1000x higher than the viral loads of the original alpha variant. We ask the district to use federal Covid money to provide higher quality masks for elementary school students in the free- or reduced-price lunch program as well as for other families experiencing financial distress. If the district declines to purchase higher quality masks, we ask for that choice to be disclosed to the public immediately so that community partners have an opportunity to raise funds to help protect all our schools’ children, especially those in the elementary schools who remain unable to be vaccinated. Further resources describing the masks that are more protective for unvaccinated children now that the delta variant is circulating may be found here and here.  

5. If the district has not already done so, we ask for a publicly available line-item accounting of the federal funds the district has spent that have been designated for health and safety equipment and upgrades to prepare for the higher transmissibility of the delta variant during the 2021-22 school year, as unvaccinated elementary children are returning to full-capacity classrooms for in-person learning.  

6. If the district has not already done so, we ask for the use of federal funds to purchase two properly-sized and located portable HEPA air purifiers for each room in the district’s elementary schools.  

7. If the district has not already done so, we ask for the use of federal funds to purchase one CO2 monitor for each room in the district’s elementary schools to provide real-time monitoring of ventilation.  

8. If the district has not already done so, we ask for an independent test of the air quality in all district rooms equipped with “ionizers.”  

We request that the district provide a public report of these results, and, if and as appropriate, cease the use of ionization equipment across the district or provide notice regarding the continued use of this equipment to all parents and caregivers in the district, so that they may be informed about air quality concerns and the lack of evidence supporting the use of this equipment.    

9. We request that the district introduce an adequate surveillance testing program in the elementary schools until our children have a chance to be fully vaccinated.  

As reported in the Washington Post this week, the COVSIM model predicts that even with mask mandates at least 40% of unvaccinated elementary students will be infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus this fall. The COVSIM model also predicts that if elementary schools mandate masks and surveillance testing, the percentage drops to under 25%. The COVSIM model provides powerful support for our urgent and high-priority request that PPS implement a surveillance testing program at the elementary schools.  

We strongly believe that it is in the best interests of all children to participate in full-time in-person learning this year. We hope that the concerns and questions in this letter will be addressed and answered swiftly. We thank the board and all our district’s staff and faculty for continued efforts to keep our children safe and learning.

Lynda Dodd and Corrine McConnaughy are parents of students in the Princeton Public Schools and professors at the School of Public and International Affairs and Department of Politics at Princeton University.  


  1. I also found the lack of communication over the summer quite frustrating. Even the letter on mandating quarantine after travel is quite late as many people already fixed their travel schedule. I remembered we had almost weekly email from the district on COVID-related planning update back in summer 2020. Even with the new superintendent, it is still a big difference.

  2. Unfortunately, the Princeton school district has shut down since the new administration started. There has been little to no communication this summer and the schedules (as of this writing) aren’t even posted even though they were supposed to be posted last week, and other school districts released the schedules several weeks ago. The new administration isn’t getting off to a good start. Is the school board aware and holding the new leadership responsible?

  3. Thank you for writing this and for your thoughtful and careful analysis of the evolving situation. The schools’ communications have been utterly unconvincing, even cavalier, in how they frame the protocols moving forward under the delta variant. A more transmissible and now more dangerous virus is being met with perplexingly more permissive protocols. There’s a train wreck on the horizon and a certain return to remote instruction, only now with the added cost of our children being the infections that bring it about. For in-person schooling to be a realistic possibility, the district needs to adhere to public health best practices and seek guidance, not from a general practitioner, but from an epidemiologist or other public health specialist.

  4. Thank you for writing this! I share your sentiments exactly. The COSVIM modeling you mention at the end and which was also cited in the WashPost and elsewhere is dire, indeed. I am genuinely puzzled by the implementation of even more permissive protocols in the face of the Delta variant, which is already abundantly confirmed to be multiple times more transmissible and, as of the latest results published just Friday in the Lancet, clearly more dangerous. Pediatric ICU’s are literally overflowing in other parts of the country and, for all the faults placed on the “unvaccinated” for this tragedy, let’s keep it front and center how many of those are unvaccinated because they are too young to receive the vaccine. Coincidentally, those that are too young to receive the vaccine are also too young to receive some of the most effective treatments for COVID, like monoclonal antibodies. The district needs to strengthen and extend its mitigation measures so that in-person schooling can be genuinely safer for its most vulnerable students. And this needs to happen NOW, not when the scenarios of rampant spread begin to unfold. If unvaccinated teachers are to test regularly, then so too can unvaccinated students at the very least.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I’ve been frustrated by the lack of communication from the school district this summer. I just watched the Facebook video from Dr. Helmrich, and that was hard to watch as well. Someone asks him if higher quality masks should be used and he says that compliance could go down because they are uncomfortable. Yet one of my kids, who has sensory processing issues, wears a KF94 mask without complaint. Then the doctor answers a question about how lunch will work and says it will vary from school to school. That’s not helpful. I want to know what’s going to happen in my kids’ school. After that, he says he’s not qualified to talk about the ventilation systems. OK. Then why isn’t there someone there who CAN answer this very important question.

    It just feels like Princeton is fighting last year’s war, satisfied that they did a good job last year. Fortunately, we have a high rate of vaccination in this community and mask wearing is taken seriously. I just feel like we could be doing more (like the suggestions above), yet aren’t for some reason.

  6. PPS needs to quickly change gears and replan to allow outdoor air in through open windows and doors, and abandon the illusion that ionizers and other untested technologies will somehow mitigate Covid-19. The science shows the opposite. And who will maintain these ionizers and run tests to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable? There is a class action suit against Global Plasma Solutions because their ionizers– the same units in our public schools– are known to emit harmful chemicals. Newark NJ schools, among other districts, have suspended their use. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation underscores that ionizers irritate airways and cause asthma symptoms. There is no regulation. Shift education, snacks, and lunches outdoors! Open windows! This is a cheap fix and it protects the health of our most vulnerable students.


  7. The high school back to school event that was rescheduled from today (Wednesday) to Friday due to weather is now going to be held indoors – on a day when the weather forecast is 75 and sunny. Kids will have to be inside during instruction hours, but there is no reason to hold this event indoors – more evidence that school administrators are not taking the Delta variant surge seriously.

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