On Wednesday, Sept. 1, University undergraduate students dispersed around campus as they headed to their first in-person classes of the fall semester, almost a year and a half after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University to adopt online learning as its main form of interactive education.
During the 2020–21 academic year, students attended classes almost exclusively using Zoom, a video conferencing web app. Some returning students, mostly in the Class of 2024, had never stepped foot into lecture halls prior to the beginning of this fall semester, due to the spring semester Social Contract, which greatly limited access to many campus facilities.
As this new semester’s classes began, Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss noted in an email to The Daily Princetonian that viral transmission does not seem to be an issue on campus.
“It’s important to note that, based on contact tracing and analysis, none of the COVID cases identified on campus thus far has resulted from transmission on campus,” he wrote.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Rachel Tam ’24 said that her first day of classes felt like a long-awaited return to normalcy.
“Virtual courses were rife with issues, because sometimes there would be connectivity problems and awkward pauses during Zoom sessions,” she said. “Seeing everybody in person was far more rewarding and really promoted genuine social interaction. It was nice to have side conversations with other people before and after class.”
First-year students, many of whom have similarly not attended in-person classes for more than a year due to the global pandemic, have also been relishing the experience of in-person classes.
Greg Serrano Arevalo ’25 expressed how much he enjoyed interacting with other students in-person during his writing seminar, WRI 137: It’s a Dog’s Life and JPN 101: Elementary Japanese I.
“It was really nice to engage in discussions with other students in a physical classroom. The social dynamics were greatly facilitated by being able to interact with one another in-person, which was much different and more beneficial to meaningful conversations than in the Zoom environment,” Arevalo said. “I enjoyed not having to press a button to unmute myself.”
Arevalo also noted that the University’s weekly COVID-19 testing protocol provided him with reassurance that convening for in-person classes would not exacerbate the spread of coronavirus.
“I think the weekly testing and mandatory face mask policy when indoors are really great measures,” he said. “In my opinion, they do a good job of making sure that we don’t have a COVID outbreak while also allowing us to socialize and experience in-person classes.”
Despite the positive reviews of the day, other students voiced concerns about the perceived relaxed nature of the University’s measures geared toward minimizing the spread of COVID-19.
One student, who requested to speak to the ‘Prince’ under the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from their peers, was skeptical that the current testing protocol and masking requirements are sufficient to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“I believe that there aren’t enough enforcements with respect to mask-wearing indoors. Also, the restrictions currently seem inconsistent because in lecture halls many of us are merely inches away from each other and required to wear masks, but the same crowded conditions occur in the dining halls and we eat very close to each other, obviously without wearing masks,” they said. “I’ve also heard of several parties that students have held indoors without wearing masks.”
The ‘Prince’ has received many reports of indoor parties on campus. The University maintains records of calls that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) receives in regard to parties on campus.
According to Hotchkiss, the “volume of calls to DPS has been consistent with prior years.”
Students, faculty, and staff vaccinated against COVID-19 participate in a weekly asymptomatic testing protocol. Community members who are unvaccinated are required to be tested twice a week.
In the week of Aug. 20, 2021, 0.21 percent of asymptomatic tests received positive results, with 11 undergraduate students, four graduate students, and six faculty or staff testing positive. In the same week, four symptomatic tests came back positive throughout the community.
Some professors have used the constraints of the pandemic as an opportunity for creative learning.
Dr. Catherine Young, a lecturer for the Princeton Writing Program, spoke with the ‘Prince’ about her first day of in-person class for her writing seminar, WRI 194: Captivating Animals.
“It was nerve wracking, but also exciting. There were certain things I forgot how to do, like how the printer works,” Young said. “I had to remember how to make eye contact with twelve different people around the table.”
“Interestingly, it also seemed to create an opportunity to incorporate the Ai Weiwei sculpture, the Circle of Animals, into my seminar. Even though I’ve been teaching ‘Captivating Animals’ for four years, it never occurred to me to have students meet outside and talk about it,” she noted. “But, as I want students to be able to see each other’s faces, possibly without masks if they felt comfortable and not be in the classroom all cooped up together and have the opportunity to be outside, we spent the beginning of class looking at sculptures and taking notes on them as part of the icebreaker for class.”
In honor of the first day of in-person classes, the University’s Coffee Club arranged an event with the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) and Undergraduate Student Government (USG) where students received free coffee and bagels under McCosh arch. Many students also posed with a black and orange sign that read “First Day” as a photographer snapped professional shots.
In addition, an ice cream truck parked outside of Firestone Library offered free soft-serve ice cream cones to students throughout the day.
“The ice cream was really good and a nice little treat for our first day,” Tam said.
Amy Ciceu is a staff writer who often covers research and COVID-19-related developments. She also serves as a Newsletter Contributor and a senior writer for The Prospect. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.