Princeton announced that all enrolled undergraduates could return to campus for the spring semester.
Sameer A. Khan
Spring plan includes social distancing, testing, and more than 3,000 undergrads

When Brennen Nishimura ’23 woke up Nov. 24, his phone was buzzing with messages from friends. Residing at home in Hawaii, five hours behind Princeton time, he checked his email to see the news for himself: A letter from President Eisgruber ’83 announced that all enrolled undergraduate students could return to campus for the spring semester. 

“I was surprised,” Nishimura said. He wasn’t the only one. All the students PAW spoke to for this story said the same. 

In the letter, Eisgruber explained how the decision was made. “During the fall term, we cultivated strong public health norms and practices on the Princeton campus; monitored and learned from experiences with the virus at Princeton and elsewhere; and established an on-campus testing laboratory,” he wrote. “In light of that work, we have concluded that, if we test the campus population regularly, and if everyone on campus rigorously adheres to public health guidance about masking, social distancing and other practices, we can welcome a far greater number of students back to Princeton.”

Of the 4,700 enrolled undergraduates, about 3,400 indicated they plan to return to campus for the spring semester, according to Michael Hotchkiss, a University spokesman. A total of 1,200 will continue remote learning off campus, while 100 did not respond.

“I am sure that I can be very isolated. I would be willing to stay in my room for weeks if that’s what is called for.” — Brennen Nishimura ’23 

Although students will be returning to campus, Eisgruber’s letter and subsequent town hall meetings for students and their families did not sugarcoat the restrictions all must follow to make a return successful. Most classes will remain virtual, but courses with an in-person component will be available for international students to comply with ICE restrictions. Some faculty have also expressed interest in teaching hybrid courses with in-person and virtual elements. Only approved seniors will be able to conduct research in campus labs. 

All undergraduates will quarantine when they arrive on campus in mid-January and will be tested regularly during the semester (the University opened a COVID-19 testing laboratory in the Department of Molecular Biology). Eating clubs will be closed, and students must sign a social contract that prohibits parties, social gatherings, and hosting off-campus guests in their rooms, and requires them to remain in the Princeton area for the entire semester. 

Graduate students were able to choose to live on campus in the fall and will continue to have that option in the spring. Most staff will continue to work remotely, but student-facing departments are developing resumption plans. 

“We have to be sober about what things will be like, especially when students arrive on campus,” Dean of the College Jill Dolan said during the Dec. 2 meeting for students and parents. 

Students had about a week to say whether they planned to return for the spring. Nishimura chose to live on campus. “I am sure that I can be very isolated. I would be willing to stay in my room for weeks if that’s what is called for,” he said. Since classes went virtual he has felt less motivated, he said, so he hopes returning to the academic setting will help. 

Imane Mabrouk ’21 also decided to return but said it was a difficult decision. She has been living with family in Atlanta, Georgia, but didn’t want to miss her last opportunity to be on campus. 

“If I had chosen to stay home I would have been sad because I wouldn’t see campus,” she said. “Now that I’ve chosen to go back to campus, it’s scary.” She said she is concerned about the quality of life for those returning. Will restrictions eventually loosen? What happens if there is an outbreak? 

Folarin Okulaja ’22 was living with friends in an apartment near campus during the fall semester. He would like to arrange a similar setup for the spring. According to the University’s website, students who want access to campus must abide by the social contract and limit guests in their homes. 

Some students have opted to continue living at home or in pod arrangements with friends away from campus. Others are weighing ethical concerns, including what it means for Princeton’s community if many students return.

“We have to be sober about what things will be like, especially when students arrive on campus.” — Jill Dolan, dean of the college

In November and December, Princeton and other New Jersey towns were experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases, according to local data. The town has been working with the University on plans to manage the spread, said Princeton Health Officer Jeffrey Grosser. 

“I feel a lot better about it now than I would have felt about it back in August,” Grosser said. “That’s saying a lot considering where we are from the disease transmission perspective.” 

Even with restrictions in place, some students think the return is a bad idea. Daniel Duncan ’24 is one of the roughly 215 students who has lived on campus since Princeton switched to remote learning. “There’s less than 300 kids here and it’s still kind of like prison,” Duncan said. “Imagine bringing back thousands and now trying to keep enforcing all these rules. It just seems like it could go really wrong really fast.” 

Anna Hiltner ’23 came to a similar conclusion after weighing what’s best for the town, the students who need emergency campus housing, and herself. In the fall she lived with friends in an Airbnb in the California mountains and decided she will not return to campus for the spring. The experience just won’t be the same, she said. 

“The beauty of being on campus is being able to go to class in person or running into friends at libraries.” She added, “When I was thinking about it, if we can’t do anything in person other than being able to see some friends, I don’t see much value in returning to campus.”