On Tuesday, Dec. 14, with finals scheduled to begin the next day, Princeton announced that it will move all exams beginning on Dec. 16 online and mandate COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for all students, faculty, and staff ahead of the spring semester.
In an email to students from Dean Dolan on Dec. 14 at 9:01 p.m., the University announced its decision to shift finals to a “remote format” to allow students to “leave campus at their earliest convenience.”
The email also stated that the University will be requiring booster shots for all students, faculty, and staff. Current policies require all students, faculty, and staff to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but allow for requests for religious and medical exemptions. Ninety-nine percent of undergraduates, 98 percent of graduate students, and 96 percent of faculty and staff have received the vaccine, according to the University dashboard.
“We’ll require all who are eligible to receive a booster by January 31, 2022,” Dolan wrote. “We’ll share details about the requirement this week.”
On Dec. 13, the day prior to Tuesday’s announcement, 24 community members had tested positive according to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, including 15 undergraduate students, four graduate students, and five faculty and staff members.
Dean Dolan cited this “rise in our case counts just registered yesterday” as a reason for the University to take new measures at this juncture so that students would not have to stay on campus into Winter Break if they test positive.
“The State of New Jersey requires anyone testing positive for COVID to isolate for 10 days, whether or not they’re symptomatic,” Dolan wrote. “We certainly don’t want you remaining on campus in required isolation through the holidays.”
Another 28 community members tested for COVID-19 on Dec. 14, as reported by the University dashboard in the morning following Dolan’s email. These results include 17 undergraduates, three graduate students, and eight faculty and staff members.
Positive cases from the 24 hours prior to the message also included “suspected cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant,” Dolan wrote. The email marks the first communication from the University to express the suspicion of the presence of the omicron variant on campus.
The announcement comes as COVID-19 campus risk status remains at “Moderate-to-High,” where it was moved up by the University as a result of an uptick at the start of Thanksgiving break.
In the wake of that uptick, the University implemented several new measures on Nov. 27, including increasing asymptomatic testing for all community members to twice weekly and capping “student social gatherings” at 20 people.
For the week ending on Dec. 10, the University case positivity rate stood at 0.18 percent, seemingly on a decline after the week ending on Dec. 3 saw a 0.34 percent positivity and the week ending on Nov. 26 had a 0.37 percent rate.
Last week’s highest isolation dorm occupancy rate was 88.3 percent, according to the dashboard.
In the Tuesday email, the University also announced that all indoor gatherings with food, and “those where face coverings can’t be worn,” will be canceled or postponed effective this Thursday, Dec. 16 until Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, when the campus is scheduled to reopen for Wintersession. Dining Services will also increase their takeout options.
“The University will revisit its gatherings guidance before January 7th and update our public health policies accordingly,” according to the email.
The news also comes in the wake of a surge in cases at Cornell University, where the omicron variant was responsible for a majority of 903 cases reported in the week of Dec. 7–13.
Cornell announced a complete shutdown of campus early Tuesday, just hours prior to Dolan’s email. The college in Ithaca, N.Y. will close libraries and fitness centers, and move all exams online, according to reporting by The Cornell Daily Sun.
About 30 minutes after Dean Dolan’s email landed in student inboxes, a petition to extend the end of finals circulated on Hoagie Mail to all residential college listservs. The petition notes that moving the deadline for some exams to Dec. 20 (the student-scheduled take-home exam deadline) compresses the final exam period, and asks that the take-home exam deadline be pushed back by “a couple of days” and that all finals be given a 24-hour window.
Though the creator of the petition declined an interview with The Daily Princetonian, he noted that about 200 students had signed the petition half an hour after it was sent.
Some students who have exams scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 15 expressed confusion about how the new policy impacts them given that the new exam policy becomes effective on Dec. 16. In one class, GEO 203: Fundamentals of Solid Earth Science, the professors sent Canvas announcements within 30 minutes of Dean Dolan’s email reminding students in the course about an in-person exam the following morning. A student from the class emailed their teaching staff with concerns about taking the exam in-person, a member of which responded that the course’s staff had not been informed of the recent announcement, according to correspondence seen by the ‘Prince.’
In the case of GEO 203, the teaching staff plan to provide options for students who do not feel comfortable taking the exam in the same room with all other students, according to a later email obtained by the ‘Prince’. The teaching staff cited an email from Dean Dolan to all faculty, which stated that “exams scheduled for tomorrow should proceed as planned.”
Dolan further noted in the email sent to all students that anyone with questions about their exams should first ask their professor, then their Residential College Dean or Director of Studies.
Meals, athletic competitions, and continuous housing over winter break will continue as scheduled, with mitigations against COVID-19 spread. In addition, a fund will be made available for students who need help with the cost of changing travel tickets, according to the email.
This story was updated on Dec. 15 following updates to the University COVID-19 dashboard, and on Dec. 21 to correct a misleading statement about the timing of the take-home exam deadline.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @rosesheinerman. She previously served as an editor of news and features and now assists with content strategy.
Miguel Gracia-Zhang is a staff writer who often covers University affairs and local news. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @gracia_zhang.