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After virtual town hall, some graduate students push back on University's COVID-19 plans

<p>The Princeton University Graduate College.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>

The Princeton University Graduate College.

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

At a Wednesday, Jan. 12 town hall about COVID-19 policies for graduate students, University administrators explained plans for the start of the semester. During the virtual event, several graduate students expressed concerns about how the University plans to handle a predicted increase in COVID-19 cases. 

University administrators at the town hall explained that they expect to reduce the length of isolation to 5 days in accordance with the revised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines — a policy change that was put into effect the next day.

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“Isolation will be a minimum of 5 days if fully vaccinated,” according to the University website. “Isolation more than 5 days is possible, but should be no longer than 10 days except in rare circumstances. For unvaccinated individuals, isolation is a minimum of 10 days.”

Some students objected to Princeton’s stated plans not to shift toward remote learning or a remote learning option for the first two weeks of the spring semester, even as UHS officials have said they expect positive cases to continue to rise throughout the month of January. 

Emily Miller GS, a doctoral candidate in Population Studies and Social Policy, walked away from the town hall feeling confused and disappointed by the University's plans for the start of the spring term.

“Princeton confirmed on this call that we weren't going to have any plans to have a remote semester — no remote [for] two weeks,” Miller told The Daily Princetonian. “We're all just going to come in and have the idea that like 80 percent of people on campus will probably get COVID anyway.” 

To Niya Bates GS, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, it seemed after the town hall that the University’s goals had shifted. 

“Their underlying assumption is that those who are vaccinated and boosted will have mild cases and thus, it's okay if people get it,” she told the ‘Prince.’ “In fact, it seems that rather than preventing people from getting it, they're just trying to make it okay for people to say that they're COVID-positive.”

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One graduate student, who spoke to the ‘Prince’ on the condition of anonymity due to the precarity of her employment by the University, said they felt the University’s approach to the spring to be “disingenuous” in terms of protecting graduate students’ health and safety. 

“If our students or colleagues are going to be in classrooms or in shared spaces, having gotten out of isolation in that shortened timeline, then it's very likely that those people could still transmit COVID to other people,” the student, referred to as Jane in this story, said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’

Jane said they particularly were concerned by Vice President for Campus Life Rochelle Calhoun’s emphasis on individual responsibility during the town hall. The University will not be mandating social distancing.

“As responsible as we might want to be as individuals, if we're required to do the things that are a part of our job description as graduate students, as teachers, there’s no way that we can keep ourselves safe with the current policy,” Jane said. “So it's disingenuous, frankly, to suggest that individual responsibility is what will keep us safe.”

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During the town hall, administrators said departments would be purchasing higher-quality masks like N95s for their students. Previously, departments could request masks through Environmental Health and Safety. But for Jane, the plans for distributing those masks are still unclear.

“I'm not sure if those supplies arrived at my department yet. I'm not sure what the plan for distribution is,” Jane said. “I'm not sure how often they'll be providing those particularly for people who teach. That's all really unclear.”

At the town hall, officials stressed how in-person classes would not have adverse health consequences for campus community members, echoing Dean of the College Jill Dolan’s statements at the Jan. 5 town hall for undergraduate students. 

Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ further about classroom policy, stressing that at the town hall, “Dr. Marks noted that last semester, we did not identify clusters in classrooms or other locations where people were consistently masked.” Still, he acknowledged that given the omicron variant, that situation may have changed. 

“We’re aware that Omicron’s greater transmissibility may change this dynamic, and we will be monitoring it closely,” Hotchkiss wrote.

Amid that possible shift in classroom transmission risk and officials’ projection of increasing case counts on campus, Jane felt the University may be putting its students at risk.

“Saying that many, many people getting COVID will happen without any risk or consequence struck me as an incredibly callous and cruel thing to impose upon a community that is coming here to do research and to teach and to get an education and doesn't want to incur that kind of quite horrifying risk to their lives,” Jane said.

A number of graduate students who work as assistants in instruction (AIs) were unhappy with what they saw as a lack of clarity and resources heading into the spring.

“There isn't this clear free flow of information between professors and graduate students or students and preceptors,” Miller told the ‘Prince.’

Bates, who also attended the town hall, told the ‘Prince’ she was “disappointed that the University is not at least considering a short, fully virtual period to begin the semester.”

“I understand the need to collect more data about current infection rates among the student body,” she said. “But it seems a little bit reckless to invite people back in person without first requiring people to quarantine or isolate until we return to in-person education in the classroom.”

Asked to comment on concerns like the ones posed by Bates, Hotchkiss wrote, “In this new pandemic environment, we are focused on limiting the spread of COVID on campus using a range of mitigations, as well as focused contact tracing, so the University can continue to pursue in-person teaching and research while protecting those who may be more vulnerable.”

Bates also criticized the focus of administrators on de-stigmatizing testing positive for COVID-19.

“If there are people who are immunocompromised who have other underlying health conditions, and the fact is, we don't understand COVID and its variants well enough to say that someone who is double vaccinated and boosted is going to be okay with a mild case,” she told the ‘Prince.’

Carolina Seigler GS, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology, referenced the mental health effects on graduate students, especially following the elimination of free telehealth coverage for in-network and out-of-network services in late July 2021.

When asked about how the graduate school will support its students by reinstating assistance with mental health copays for therapists who are not seeing clients in person, Calhoun recommended that students in need apply through assistance funds.  

Miller, one of the graduate students at the town hall, also expressed concern regarding dining protocol for the start of the term. For graduate students, specifically, the “grab-and-go” policy presents challenges given the distance between lab spaces and graduate student housing.

“Students are still expected to be in a lab or in an office space, and they're going to have to take off their masks to eat, which kind of goes against this kind of idea that you can't eat,” she said. “Grad students are not going to go home to their room and eat lunch.”

The town hall took place on Jan. 12 at 4 p.m. ET on Zoom.

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote regarding the flow of information between preceptors and students to Carolina Seigler. In fact, this statement was made by Emily Miller. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.

Katherine Dailey is a Co-Head News Editor who often covers breaking news, politics, and University affairs. She can be reached at kdailey@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @kmdailey7.

Naomi Hess is a News Editor Emerita who focuses on University policy and alumni affairs. She can be reached at nihess@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @NaomiHess17.

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