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‘Such a pivot’: Students express concern following Princeton memo on uptick in COVID-19 cases

<h6><strong>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</strong></h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

On Feb. 18, Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun sent a memo to the undergraduate student body addressing the recent spike in undergraduate COVID-19 cases. The memo, which urged students to “take good care to limit your exposure to avoid testing positive for COVID[-19]” in advance of midterms week, has sparked controversy on campus, as some students have argued the email was insensitive and placed an unfair burden on students who test positive. 

The memo explained that “the University is not planning additional COVID[-19] mitigations right now,” despite the University reporting its highest undergraduate case counts on record this past week. 

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Dean Dolan sent out another memo on Feb. 27, reiterating the importance of COVID-19 precautions as midterms week approaches.

The Daily Princetonian spoke with students in the wake of the initial Feb. 18 email.

Mia Medic ’25 said she was frustrated with the announcement. 

“A majority of us have been following the protocols for what, the past two, two and a half years? So to say not to get COVID[-19] around midterms, really, it’s not something we want,” she said. “I think the entirety of the email was quite frustrating.”

Dean Dolan and VP Calhoun said in an email to the ‘Prince’ that “we understand that some students are frustrated by the email we sent last Friday. Over the two years of this pandemic, we’ve made it clear that Princeton [i]s a community and we personally are deeply concerned about students’ health and well-being.”

Sajan Young ’24 said he perceived the memo as contradictory to prior University COVID-19 policy. 

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“About 500 students right now  — or so — undergraduates have or had COVID[-19] in the last month,” Young said. “And to say that everything is normal and everything’s fine is very clearly against the University’s past policies. To see this sort of change so quickly is such a pivot.”

The University COVID-19 Dashboard reports 708 unique positive cases for the month of February, up until Feb. 25.

Matthew Wilson ’24 said that while he agrees with University policy, parts of the memo struck him as unrealistic.

“I don’t know how the University expects people to just not get COVID[-19] during midterms week. That’s just not realistic,” he told the ‘Prince.’ “However, I agree with the general sentiment of the memo — particularly with the notion that we need to learn how to live with COVID[-19] as much as we live with other common infections.”

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Wilson has previously written a petition asking the University to end the indoor mask mandate. 

“I’m glad the University seems to be more hesitant in pushing draconian mandates and shutdowns every time there’s a spike in cases — it’s past time we moved beyond reactive COVID policies that sacrifice much and achieve very little,” he added.

Ashley Olenkiewicz ’25 expressed how with such high infection rates, testing positive for COVID-19 is not something that students should be blamed for as they can take all precautions necessary and still wind up getting infected. 

“I think to phrase it as if our work suffering can be connected to our activities and the precautions we take to not get COVID[-19] makes it [so] that students feel guilt in getting COVID[-19] and that if their work suffers it is their own fault,” she said.

Olenkiewicz is a staff columnist for the ‘Prince.’

Dean Dolan and VP Calhoun, in the statement to the ‘Prince,’ reiterated that they “would never suggest that getting COVID[-19] is a personal choice. We know that getting COVID[-19] has a huge impact on our students’ mental health, emotional well-being, and academic work,” they added. 

“This is why our email reiterated our exhortations from throughout the pandemic: take good care of yourself and your health, as well as the health of others, and try to focus on your studies and attending class,” they wrote.

The most recent Feb. 27 memo said that during midterms week — which starts Monday, Feb. 28 — “instructors planning in-class examinations should make the exam available to students in isolation” and that “students isolating should take the exam electronically” simultaneously with their peers who are taking in-class.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ the Princeton Disability Collective argued that the University administration has lacked sensitivity with regards to students’ health and wellbeing. 

“[Dolan’s Feb. 18 memo] orders students to avoid infection while providing no leniency regarding academic work or in-person class attendance, [and] no resources to support student health during this incredibly distressing time,” Jennifer Lee ’23 and Ellen Li ’22, members of the Disability Collective, wrote. “The administration’s push to portray [COVID-19] safety as an individual, rather than a collective institutional burden has been a shocking abdication of their responsibility to ensure public health.”

Li is a Features editor emerita at the ‘Prince.’

Dean Dolan and VP Calhoun responded to this concern, writing, “Our faculty have worked hard to make classwork available to students who are in required isolation or quarantine; our colleagues in Dining Services have worked hard to deliver meals; our health team has provided numerous resources and practiced their care; our students have sacrificed many typical college experiences to keep one another safe.”

“We remain a community committed to staying healthy together,” they added.

The Disability Collective has previously asked the University to make virtual learning options available to all students, not just those in isolation. 

Laura Robertson is a News Contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at lr15@princeton.edu

Diya Kraybill is a Senior News Writer who often covers student groups and University affairs. She can be reached at diyak@princeton.edu.

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