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Princeton faculty, students with unvaccinated children prepare for an uncertain fall

<h5>Johnson, an undergraduate transfer student, with his wife and young daughter.</h5>
<h6>Thomas Johnson ’22 for The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Johnson, an undergraduate transfer student, with his wife and young daughter.
Thomas Johnson ’22 for The Daily Princetonian

On campus, Alberto Bruzos Moro is the director of Princeton’s Spanish Language Program and is slated to teach two seminars this fall. Off campus, Bruzos is a father to an immunocompromised nine-year-old son. With the rise of the COVID-19 delta variant, Bruzos is left balancing excitement for a return to the classroom with worries about his child’s health.

“On the one hand, I’m really happy because I miss teaching in-person,” Bruzos told The Daily Princetonian. “On the other hand, I’m worried because, you know, having a kid at home who is immunocompromised, it is a little concerning. At least until he can get the vaccine.”

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Two weeks before the first day of class, the overall vaccination rate for Princeton’s students, faculty, and staff stood at 95 percent, President Christopher Eisgruber ’85 wrote in a blog post on Aug. 19, adding that the University expects it “to be even higher by the start of the semester.”

Students’ vaccination rate as of Thursday, Aug. 19 was at 96 percent, according to Deputy Communications Director Michael Hotchkiss. “In the coming weeks,” he wrote to the ‘Prince,’ “we expect that figure to rise to between 98 percent and 99 percent as students — including those arriving from international locations — complete the vaccination process and provide appropriate documentation.”

The employee vaccination rate, as of Aug. 19, was approximately 96.7 percent, based on the COVID-19 dashboard. The approximate total number of employees at the University was identified by Hotchkiss to the ‘Prince’ as 7,400.

But even as the high vaccination rate comes as a relief to many community members worried about the nation’s latest coronavirus surge, parents on campus are left to grapple with a unique set of concerns. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, although some reporting suggests that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may green-light a COVID-19 vaccine for children as soon as this fall.

On Aug. 11, the University announced a universal indoor mask mandate, with exceptions for students in their own dorm rooms, while “actively eating or drinking,” or when alone in a room or cubicle.

At the employee town hall the next day, Executive Vice President Treby Williams clarified that the current indoor face coverings requirement “does not include classroom instruction, where we understand that mask wearing can be difficult.” She said that “any need for face coverings in the classroom” would be addressed by Aug. 23. But Hotchkiss said on Aug. 20 that “as of now, everyone would wear a mask” in class, stressing that additional guidance is still forthcoming.

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With days left before Bruzos will step into an East Pyne seminar room with 13 students, he is awaiting a decision on classroom masking policy.

One point of stress for him, he said, is that unlike during the first coronavirus wave, when scientists thought that children’s immune systems were far more equipped to handle the virus than those of adults, the delta variant has impacted children at significantly higher rates.

“There is a lot of uncertainty,” Bruzos said. “I understand the students or people who think, ‘Well we are all vaccinated, or almost everybody, there’s a low risk that is tolerable.’ I understand that, and I know that everybody, we have sacrificed a lot for more than one year.”

Thomas Johnson ’22, a 28-year-old transfer student, will be living on campus this fall in graduate housing with his pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter. For him, the mask mandate announcement “came as a source of relief.”

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“It’s definitely been worrisome,” said Johnson, who along with his wife, has received the vaccine. “It’s very unlikely that we’re going to get very sick if we were to catch COVID, but we’re more worried about our daughter.” Another concern, he added, has been the possibility of his wife passing along the virus to their unborn child.

Johnson explained that it’s been “scary” to hear arguments from classmates that he feels dismiss the small percentage of unvaccinated people on campus — including “a lot of people who can’t get the vaccine” — as an afterthought. At the same time, he said he empathizes with students who lived with social distancing restrictions in the spring and want to see a normal semester. Johnson himself did not live on campus during the 2020–21 academic year.

Paul Frymer, a politics professor and the father of two elementary-school-aged kids, said that faculty, like all people, “have different risk factors.”

“As a faculty member, I’m not looking forward to lecturing with a mask on,” he said, but noted that right now, the “extra precaution” of indoor masking makes sense to him. One solution Frymer has considered is asking permission to teach his seminar outdoors, at least for the first month or two, as weather permits.

Yet another factor on the minds of professor-parents is protocol for isolation and quarantine in the case of a positive test.

If a student were to test positive for the virus and be forced to isolate under campus rules, Dean of the College Jill Dolan initially said at the Aug. 9 town hall, the University “won’t have remote options for those students except perhaps informal ones, like a friend FaceTiming you in.” The Undergraduate Student Government Academics Committee said in a Thursday Instagram post that Dolan’s office in collaboration with the committee “is developing new procedures” for isolation, “so that if a student must isolate during the semester, they should not fall behind in their coursework.”

And in a memo to students on Friday, the University said faculty will be required to accommodate students in isolation or quarantine, either by inviting them to “attend” class via a Zoom link on their laptop, or by recording the class and posting it on Canvas.

Frymer had another set of questions: “What if one of our kids, through their own schools, [tests] positive? Then we have to stay home? So what do we do? Do we then do a class on Zoom, or do we … there’s just a lot of things to figure out.”

The reality of his child heading back to in-person learning is not lost on Bruzos as he readies himself for September.

“I know the risk cannot be reduced to zero,” he said. “My kids are going to go back to school with masks, [but] they’re not going to be at home like before. The risk is going to be there.” New Jersey has mandated that face coverings be worn indoors in all elementary and secondary schools.

In the end, Bruzos said he’s “not very worried,” mostly because of what he sees as Princeton’s record of cautious decision-making on public health measures throughout the pandemic.

“The University has been more on the careful side,” he said. “I’m more worried for things that are beyond the control of the University, or me, or anyone.”

Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a senior writer who has reported on COVID-19 policy, faculty controversy, sexual harassment allegations, major donors, campus protests, and more. She can be reached at ms78@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @rosesheinerman. She previously served as an editor of news and features and now assists with content strategy.

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