Someone walks past Whitman College in May 2020, after students were sent home.
Sameer A. Khan
Half of undergraduates will be allowed back on campus each semester

Editor’s note: Princeton announced in August that the fall semester will be virtual for all undergraduates. Read more here.

Princeton undergraduates will be invited back to campus for one semester of the 2020-21 academic year and most classes will continue virtually, according to a July 6 University announcement. Freshmen and juniors will be allowed to return for the fall semester, and sophomores and seniors will be invited back for the spring. A limited number of other students whose special circumstances require them to be on campus will also be permitted to return. 

When they return, students will be tested for COVID-19 and will be required to wear face coverings while indoors, except for when they are in their dorm rooms. They must maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from others. Undergraduate students will be required to sign a social contract agreeing to the required behaviors on campus. The contract rules include agreeing not to host off-campus guests or in-person gatherings and to remain in the Princeton area as much as possible. 

Those who do not follow the requirements will face disciplinary actions, including being asked to leave campus. The full details of Princeton’s plan for the fall 2020 undergraduate return to campus can be found on the University's website.  

“Despite the restrictions required by public-health considerations, we are confident that Princeton will be able to offer an outstanding education to all of its students, whether they are studying on campus or remotely,” President Eisgruber ’83 wrote in a letter to the community. “The University is increasing its investment in both its online and in-person programming in order to address the challenges presented by the pandemic.”

All undergraduates will have the option to complete the entire year remotely, he said, suggesting that students “should bear in mind that the campus experience will be very different from an ordinary year. For example, most undergraduate teaching will be online rather than in person even for on-campus students. Many activities will be unavailable, impermissible, or highly regulated. Parties will be prohibited.” 

All graduate students may return for the academic year. Those who cannot return can work with their programs to arrange remote alternatives. Princeton’s research community began a phased return to campus in July. 

In an interview with PAW, Dean of the College Jill Dolan shared the key factors that went into making the decision to split the undergraduate population allowed on campus each semester. “We very much acknowledged that students want to be on campus, that being residential, especially at a place like Princeton where 98 percent of our students do live on campus, it’s a huge part of the college and university experience,” she said. “That said, we know we’re limited by public-health guidelines, by state regulations, [and] by the requirement that we ‘de-densify’ the campus in order to meet those regulations.”

She added that the decision on which students would reside on campus each semester was based on what they hoped would best benefit the classes. “We decided bringing first-years back in the fall makes sense because they’ve had no experience with Princeton before and they should, as they’re acclimating to campus and a Princeton education,” Dolan said. “Juniors should come back in the fall because they are just starting their concentrations and because their junior seminars, which tend to be all juniors from a concentration, could conceivably be offered residentially, although some of them might not. And then in the spring, sophomores are declaring concentrations and seniors are graduating, so that seemed the best mix of classes to have on campus.”

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“We will commit to making the experience on campus as good as it can be, and the remote learning experience as good as it can be,” Dolan said. “We’re putting a lot of time and resources into making sure our teaching is really excellent, given the technology at hand.” The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning has worked throughout the summer to create more opportunities for virtual learning.

While most courses will be online, “faculty might be able to teach a smaller course, seminar, or a precept or a lab on-site/in-person for students who are on campus,” said University spokesman Michael Hotchkiss. He added they hope to know specifics by late August. 

“We’re inviting faculty who are willing and able to teach residentially if they would like and if the classroom context is safe and adequate for their work,” Dolan added. Physical changes will be needed to make this work. Dolan noted, for example, that a seminar with 15 students would need to be taught in a classroom that can accommodate 50 people. Classrooms also will need adequate ventilation systems, Dolan said.  

To help with social distancing, all undergraduate students who return to campus will have their own rooms or will have private sleeping spaces within suites. Other measures are being considered to protect staff who may be asked to return to their offices, such as installing plexiglass barriers, Dolan said. 

In addition to classroom education, the University is thinking about ways to offer extracurricular activities for the community, Dolan said. Judy Jarvis, director of Wintersession (which is postponed for the academic year) and campus engagement, along with Undergraduate Student Government and other departments, has been working to create virtual community-building events. The University is in conversation with the eating clubs about their status for the fall, but no decision has been made according to University spokesman Ben Chang.  

There’s no denying the upcoming semester will be very different, but Dolan said she hopes students will not postpone their college experience because the future is unknown. “I am just so deeply sorry that their college experience happens to coincide with a very complicated, urgent, and dangerous moment in American history. … I hope that people will be able to take the long view, simply because the most important thing is to preserve everyone’s health and safety,” she said. 

Princeton’s Ivy League peers have been sharing their plans for the fall in recent days. Harvard University expects about 40 percent of undergraduates, including first-year students, to be on campus in the fall. Yale University will bring back most undergraduates, with sophomores taking courses remotely in the fall term and freshmen studying remotely in the spring. The University of Pennsylvania announced a “hybrid model” of online and classroom instruction, with many students returning to campus. Cornell University plans to have an in-person semester this fall, with an adapted calendar and remote options for students who cannot return. Dartmouth College will bring approximately half of the student body to campus for each term of the upcoming academic year.

According to a database maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 60 percent of U.S. institutions are planning for in-person instruction, 23 percent are proposing a hybrid model, and 8 percent are planning for online instruction (primarily in California, where the state university system announced an online-only fall semester). 

Princeton’s academic calendar will be shifted to reduce travel. The fall semester will begin two days earlier, on Aug. 31, and fall break will be reduced to a long weekend. Students will leave campus for Thanksgiving break and the remainder of the semester will be completed virtually. The University announced a 10 percent reduction to tuition for the 2020-21 academic year, whether students are on campus or studying remotely, and prorated room and board charges for first-semester students who depart at Thanksgiving break.

As the University continues to plan for the upcoming semester, campus leaders will continue to monitor cases in the state and follow guidance from New Jersey officials, Eisgruber said in his letter.

Eisgruber left the door open for inviting more students back in the spring, if the COVID-19 situation improves, but he noted that it’s also possible “matters will get worse” and require sending students home or reducing the spring cohort on campus.