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USG report highlights effects of 'Princeton Plague' on student health, academic performance

<h5>McCosh Health Center</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
McCosh Health Center
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

During the fall 2021 semester, many undergraduate students found themselves sick with a variety of seasonal illnesses, such as the common cold and strep throat. Collectively dubbed the “Princeton Plague” by students, these non-COVID-19 illnesses prevented many of those afflicted from attending courses in person and completing academic work in a timely and proficient manner, among other challenges. 

In a recent report compiled by members of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Academics Committee, the committee summarized the findings of a survey they administered gauging student experiences balancing health and academics as they grappled with the “Princeton Plague.”

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The findings, which collected responses from 207 students, paint a picture of how juggling academics while suffering from the “Princeton Plague” was an overwhelmingly negative experience for those affected. 

AB students made up 76.3 percent of respondents to the survey. According to the survey results, 186 students — 89.9 percent of the total respondents —  reported that they had been ill during the fall semester, with 78.5 percent reporting that they had been ill at least twice. 

Of the students surveyed, a vast majority responded that the quality of their academic work suffered (84.7 percent) and that their illnesses impeded their ability to effectively learn material (75.3 percent). Correspondingly, a majority of students (84.4 percent) reported that experiencing illness during the fall semester exerted a negative effect on their mental health.

The survey was primarily composed of multiple-choice questions that asked students to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with certain statements. For example, one question read, “My instructors have not created classroom procedures that accommodate students who have been ill,” with which 59.6 percent of respondents agreed. Furthermore, the survey granted students an option to elaborate on their responses to certain questions. 

Examples of some responses cited in the report revolved around the challenges students encountered while navigating academic life amid illness and a perceived lack of institutional support in place to enable them to prosper academically.

“When you miss even a day of work here due to illness, it feels like the rest of the semester is doomed. There is an extremely toxic culture around always being productive and coming to class no matter how sick you are,” wrote one anonymous junior.

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“This isn't just because Princeton students are workaholics - it's because there is no system in place to help students catch up after falling ill,” they added.

William Huang ’25 reiterated similar concerns, describing in an email to The Daily Princetonian how being ill with the “Princeton Plague” compromised his ability to dedicate his best efforts in the realms of academics and athletics.

“I really struggled with staying up to date with assignments and just following the schedule of the syllabus in general. It was especially difficult with all of the classes that I had to miss due to the fever and body aches that I experienced that kept me bedridden,” wrote Huang.

“Furthermore, as an athlete, it severely hurt my performances both during competition and practice. It was extremely frustrating to not be able to improve myself both academically and athletically, especially since my purpose here is to develop into a better person,“ he continued.

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The absence of institutional support for students convalescing from illnesses is a recurring theme among these responses. Toward the end of the report, the “Discussion” section underscores two focal points for improvement: culture and consciousness.

With respect to the “Culture” component, the report suggests that students often felt that they had to prioritize their academic performance at the expense of their physical and mental health, “working through illness rather than recovering from it.”

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Austin Davis ’23, academics committee chair and co-writer of the report, noted that the current University “culture” derives from multiple sources.

“I think an important part of this is the culture, a culture that is definitely upheld partly by University policy, partly by our own expectations of ourselves,“ he said.

“Consciousness” in the report refers to the pervasive lack of support and knowledge of specific policies reported among student respondents. Moreover, many students reported a lack of confidence in their ability to reach out to professors to arrange accommodations and inquire about specific policies.

Davis explained to the ‘Prince’ that oftentimes, the attendance policies unique to each course can be opaque to students, contributing to low “consciousness” about what instructors expect of them attendance-wise.

“Instructors should clarify their attendance policies. I think that is one of the systemic issues, is that generally most classes don’t and most people aren’t generally aware that there’s an overarching academic attendance policy at the University,” he said.

The report describes “culture” and “consciousness” as “intricately interwoven,” arguing that increased consciousness of University policies and expectations can translate to a recalibration of the culture and vice versa. 

First-year students comprised both the greatest proportion of students out of all the class years who responded to the survey, as well as the least likely class-year demographic to record absences in their classes during the 2021 fall semester. Compared to the average number of two absences among undergraduates overall, first-year students tended to record one or no absences.

Academics Committee Member Leena Memon ’25, another co-writer of the report, spoke on the challenges particular to students in her class year, many of whom have contended with University academics in conjunction with illness for the first time.

“I think that with experience, you come to know how to go about contacting your Director of Studies, how to reach out to a professor, and it seems less intimidating the longer that you’re a student,” Memon said.

“Personally, I feel like first-year students — and based on anecdotes that I’ve heard from my friends — may feel more intimidated by reaching out to learn about attendance policies,” she added.

In a town hall in early January, Dr. Melissa Marks of the University Health Center said that those viruses “do not need medical intervention” and that the immune system can fight them on its own.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations to both instructors and the Office of the Dean of the College. 

One recommendation from the Academics Committee includes the accessible implementation of an attendance policy in all course documents, with an “Attendance” tab on Canvas proposed as a viable means of clarifying uncertainties surrounding the relative importance of attendance to students’ standings in courses.

Furthermore, this recommendation additionally addresses the matter of leniency when students report being too ill to maintain consistent attendance, noting that attendance policies “should not penalize students for missing classes in the case of illness, unless absences become severe and frequent enough to warrant some form of academic demerit.”

The report’s recommendations also underscore the importance of faculty demonstrating compassion to students. In particular, the Academic Committee suggests that the flexibility of extension approvals for assignments should be improved to accommodate ill students.

Davis emphasized the importance of instituting clear attendance expectations and acknowledged the call from many students for COVID-19-specific accommodations to extend to students sick with non-COVID-19 illnesses. 

“Obviously, I hope that the formulation of an attendance policy makes faculty and instructors look at attendance and how they should center student wellbeing. But I really don’t want this to be the end of the conversation,” Davis said.

“But many of the accommodations that have been imagined for COVID — Zoom, recorded lectures, et cetera — have been specifically put aside for those who have COVID. I’ve seen and have been very sympathetic to many other calls for that to be extended to other students, those who are ill, those who are immunocompromised,” he added.

Amy Ciceu is a senior writer who often covers research and COVID-19-related developments. She also serves as a Newsletter Editor. She can be reached at aciceu@princeton.edu. 

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