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Courses going virtual, students encouraged to stay home after break

Christopher Eisgruber

University President Christopher L. Eisgruber

Photo Credit: Jon Ort/ The Daily Princetonian

At 9:02 a.m. Monday morning, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 updated the University about next steps regarding COVID-19 preparations. Among other changes, the letter announced plans for virtual instruction starting the week of March 23, and encouraged students to remain at home during that time.

The University also announced restrictions on travel and encouraged individuals “planning University-sponsored international and domestic travel for the remainder of 2020 and 2021” to reconsider their plans.


The University will soon begin instituting a series of policies and practices “based on the concept of social distancing.” These include the virtualization of “all lectures, seminars, and precepts” beginning after spring break, as well as the limitation of the size of campus gatherings and meetings. University-sponsored travel will also be restricted.

The policies mentioned in this letter “will be in place through Sunday, April 5,” and reassessed as that date approaches, according to Eisgruber.

Additionally, according to an email sent to students admitted to the Class of 2024, the University has canceled Princeton Preview, its on-campus admitted student program.

At around 6 p.m., New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy declared a State of Emergency. According to reporting from NBC, the number of coronavirus cases in the tri-state area “has tripled since Friday.”

“Right now, the overall risk to individuals from coronavirus is remains low, but we are taking this step out of an abundance of precaution and prudence to ensure that we are proactive in our response,“ Murphy said in a video posted to Twitter.


Eisgruber’s Monday morning letter came after a night of confusion, during which a University-domain website was inadvertently updated to indicate that University classes would be going online and certain events would be canceled. In a 1:08 a.m. statement to The Daily Princetonian, Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss confirmed that “[p]olicy information under development was inadvertently made viewable to the public.”

Some of the un-finalized information released late last night was confirmed by Eisgruber’s letter — including decisions to begin virtual instruction after spring break, “limit the number and size of campus gatherings and meetings,” and restrict University-sponsored travel.

Then, at 2:08 p.m., updated policies and guidance for the COVID-19 were published on the University website. Among other things, this announcement laid out specific “social distancing” policies and reaffirmed that academic classes and midterm exams will continue this week. It also confirmed several of the inadvertently-announced policies, including the prohibition of all University-sponsored travel and recommendation against events with more than 100 people and the prohibition on all University-sponsored international travel.

The University has also since launched a new coronavirus information page on its website which provides updates on University policy, resources for general and medical questions, links to external resources, and a full list of COVID-19-related University communications. As of 6:45 p.m., the University is “developing Frequently Asked Questions for students, faculties, staff, and others” — according to this site.

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In addition to these policies, the University has noted that the “further guidance for specific programs and areas is still being developed and will be distributed throughout the week.”

“Any changes in these policies will be communicated to students, faculty, and staff in a timely manner,” the update notes.

There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Mercer County, after a potential case tested negative, according to state health officials. There are also no reported cases of coronavirus at Princeton, according to the new University page.

Classes going virtual

According to Eisgruber's letter, all “lectures, seminars, and precepts” will become virtual — a “mandatory, temporary move” — beginning on Monday, March 23, following spring break.

The 2:08 p.m. update reiterated this decision and confirmed that academic classes and midterm exams will continue the week of March 9 as planned. According to this release, “faculty have received guidance and recommendations on on-line delivery methods” and the McGraw Center will provide support to instructors. 

The McGraw Center website currently contains pages on “General Guidance for Adapting Your Course,” “Strategies for Direct Instruction,” and “Exams, Communication, and Course Administration” in times of disruption. 

Additionally, Blackboard has been updated with an announcement providing instructions on how to log into Zoom — a video conferencing and online meetings platform — for the first time.

The letter from Eisgruber also stated that the University would be “sharing guidance throughout the week with staff about how these new policies will impact daily operations”

This virtualization of courses follows the lead of a number of other universities across the country, including the University of Washington, Stanford University, and Columbia University.

While understanding the University’s decision, economics professor Henry Farber said he believes going online will negatively impact the quality of some courses. While going online may not be an issue for large lecture courses, he questions how professors will be able to facilitate small-group discussions without in-person, face-to-face interaction.

“I believe the University is doing what they think best after careful consideration,” he said. “It seems obvious to me that it will have impacts on the quality of instruction — in particular, in smaller, more-participatory, seminar-style classes.”

“Let’s hope this all ends soon and we can get back to live classes before the end of the semester,” he added.

Eisgruber’s letter did not recommend the cancelation of midterm exams, and a later follow-up noted that “[a]cademic classes and mid-term exams will still continue the week of March 9 as planned, following social distancing protocols.”

Though, some professors have already altered their schedules.

As of Monday morning, some courses have already moved online, though the new policy will not be mandatory until after spring break. Michael Freedman, a professor of computer science and instructor for COS 461: Computer Networks, announced to students via Piazza that the course would be “switching to virtual lectures until further notice,” announcing that today’s lecture would be conducted via Zoom.

Additionally, PSY 252: Social Psychology students originally expected to take an in-class, online exam, but according to a student in the course, Assistant Professor of Psychology Diana Tamir told students to complete their exams remotely, “in [their] rooms.”

In his letter, Eisgruber added that while much remains unknown about the epidemiology and impact of COVID-19, the University community should proceed on the assumption that the virus will spread more broadly and eventually reach the campus. According to the letter, the University received medical advice to enact preventative policies now, before cases potentially arrive to the campus.

“Acting now will also give students who wish to do so the option to stay home after Spring Break and meet academic requirements remotely,” he wrote.

Limiting gatherings, canceling Preview

The letter also stated that in order to “protect the health of our community,” it will be necessary to “limit the number and size of campus gatherings and meetings.”

According to the 2:08 p.m. update, the University is discouraging in-person meetings, instead recommending that “remote technology whenever possible, including substituting conference calls and phone conversations for in-person meetings,” be used.

Additionally, hosted events involving “more than 100 people or use more than one-third of their venue’s capacity” are required to be postponed or canceled. All events — including those sponsored by the “University, schools, departments or units, as well as student-sponsored events” — are affected.

“Certain events, such as athletic contests and performances, may be modified to decrease the need for a crowd or audience,” the announcement wrote. “Details on these modifications are under development and will be shared once finalized. “

Furthermore, University officials required that all events submit a Conference and Events Services form for review and potential recommendations.

“The University will continue to support, where possible and subject to appropriate restrictions, research, educational, and campus life activities that require physical presence,” the update stated. 

The notice also encouraged three “social distancing techniques,” including keeping at least six feet between oneself and others in public spaces, avoiding close contact — including handshakes and hugging, and limiting in-person meetings.

Additionally, in an email sent to admitted students this morning, University Dean of Admission Karen Richardson ’93 announced the decision to “cancel the on-campus portion of Princeton Preview,” the admitted student program originally set to take place on April 14–15 and April 22–23, out of an “abundance of caution.”

“Our top priority is to support the health and well being of our community. [...] Our concern extends to you — our admitted students and family members — who may be put at risk in traveling to campus,” Richardson noted.

Richardson’s email further stated that the University will be offering a “robust digital Preview program” with faculty and administrator panels, virtual Q&A sessions between current and admitted students, and livestream events.

Additionally, at 4:14 p.m., the official Twitter account for the University Graduate School informed students that all “Student Life events” at the Graduate School would be canceled through April 5.

In his letter, Eisgruber wrote that University officials understand how these and other measures will cause disruption and inconvenience to the campus community, but that they “strongly believe that actions taken now will have the greatest change of decreasing risk.”

“I appreciate that these measures impose significant restrictions and costs on projects that matter tremendously to each of us,” he wrote. “I also understand that people may have different views about how to respond to the risks and uncertainties that we face, but I ask all of you to join in supporting these policies, which address a threat affecting us all.”

“Princeton University has always been a community that cares for one another, and we will need that spirit now more than ever,” he concluded.

Travel restrictions and recommendations

Eisgruber’s Monday morning letter noted that the University would “restrict University-sponsored travel.” More recent updates from the University have clarified this statement by restricting or recommending against both domestic and international travel. 

“All University-sponsored international travel is prohibited, and all personal international travel is strongly discouraged,” the website notes. “Non-essential University-sponsored domestic travel should be postponed or canceled.”

The notice also clarified that these restrictions do not apply to community members “who are currently studying or working remotely.”

While these travel restrictions are in place “until at least April 5,” the University is also asking individuals to rethink travel plans through the remainder of the year and beyond. 

According to the notice, the University is encouraging individuals and academic and administrative units to consider postponing University-sponsored travel plans “for the remainder of 2020 and 2021” and to “pay close attention” to cancellation and refund policies if making any University-sponsored travel plans.

The University also reiterated its policy that all students, faculty, and staff returning to the U.S. from impacted countries — CDC Warning Levels 2 and 3 and USDOS Levels 3 and 4 — must fill out an online assessment form before their return.

According to the University announcement, further guidance for specific programs and areas is being developed and will be distributed throughout the week.

Last updated at 6:45 p.m.