Last semester, I got the dreaded text from a friend: “so sorry, but I just tested positive for covid.” Instantly, my stomach sank. My likelihood of having gotten COVID-19 from this friend was low — we only had one class together, and we had worn masks during most of our interactions. Nevertheless, the worry persisted. In the Spring 2022 semester, I had been sick with COVID-19 before during midterms week. At that time, Princeton still had many of its strict COVID-19 policies in place. Though mask mandates and weekly testing had been eliminated, the University provided isolation housing for students as well as clear support for obtaining meals during and after the isolation period. Furthermore, many lectures posted recordings of classes or provided Zoom links. COVID-19 still was not easy to deal with — it’s difficult to stay on top of Princeton’s demanding workload while ill — but it was more manageable. Just one semester later, however, with fewer accommodations but the same moral requirements to isolate, it’s near impossible for students with COVID-19 to keep up with their academics while isolating.
Princeton began last semester by stripping away most of its COVID-19 policies, stressing a return to in-person learning and largely signaling that the pandemic was a thing of the past. On the one hand, Princeton touts a return to normalcy and college activity, offering little support for students who fall ill. Yet at the same time, following CDC advice, it demands that students who do fall ill should isolate themselves for the safety of their peers and the broader campus community. Mandating isolation and making it practicable are two different things. The University’s current approach allows it to shirk responsibility and place the burden upon students, presenting them with a choice: isolate and risk the academic repercussions, or go to class and put others at risk.
Princeton’s weak policies and nonexistent support currently treat COVID-19 as almost nothing more than the common cold. But COVID-19 is not just any illness, especially within the context of the last three years. It carries unique moral baggage. Since the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 has been both politicized and made a question of morality, especially in the United States. With a devastating pandemic came a series of drastic lifestyle changes that were quickly (perhaps out of necessity) cast in moral terms. By isolating and masking, for example, a person was saving lives — one 2020 New York Times article noted that “2.2 million people could have died in the United States” had lockdown guidelines not been followed. Another described masking as “one of the most self-protective and altruistic things we can do.” And on the flip side, refusing to do either was endangering others and being neglectful, even comparable to “driving drunk.”
Now, as both a university and a country, we stand at a crossroads. COVID-19 restrictions continue to fall away as we “open up” and “return to normal.” Yet the events and messaging of the last three years have not been erased by this return to normalcy. Many of us, including myself, continue to feel the moral burden associated with getting and spreading COVID-19. This makes Princeton’s current COVID-19 policies difficult to navigate.
It’s completely normal (and socially acceptable) to come to class sick at Princeton — the University doesn’t care if you have a cold or the flu. You show up, and you tough it out. Yet this attitude doesn’t translate to COVID-19. While you’re not a “bad person” for coming to class with the flu, you are a bad person if you show up with COVID-19. Princeton obviously recognizes the weight of COVID-19, as it still mandates isolation in response (and only in response) to it. Yet the isolation accommodations do not reflect this understanding.
The current support system for students with COVID-19 are weak at best and shift all responsibility onto the students, even while they deal with illness. One key change is the lack of COVID-19 housing. Students are no longer placed in a separate space for isolation. Instead, their options are to stay in a room and resign themselves to infecting their roommate, kick their roommate out into a common room or a friend's room, or go home/find off-campus housing. There is an added moral stressor if the student has roommates — if their roommate gets COVID-19 as well, the initially infected student feels directly responsible, even though it’s the University that put them in this position in the first place.
The lack of accommodations in place also makes academics difficult to navigate while infected. Professors vary in their willingness to support students in isolation: while some professors are incredibly accommodating, there is no requirement for them to be. Even professors with good intentions have returned to in-person mode and have left their consistent pandemic-era support behind. They may post lectures at the end of the week, fail to record the class, or simply provide nothing at all. Students have to fight to stay caught up, largely because there’s no real policy for both students and faculty to reference. Students either have to miss class and fall behind, or do the “immoral” thing and essentially “drunk drive” through campus. This burden shouldn’t be on students’ shoulders.
Princeton needs to standardize better accommodations for students who miss class (whether it’s for COVID-19 or other illnesses). For lectures, this may include posting slides/notes and lecture recordings directly after class. For precepts and seminars, this may mean providing a Zoom option (so even if the student is unable to participate, they won’t fall behind). Classes with limits on how many sessions can be missed (e.g. Writing Seminar) should not count days missed due to isolation. Furthermore, students should not be forced to figure out their COVID-19 accommodations — the University should be providing COVID-19 housing for infected students. If the University wants us to isolate ourselves, it has to help us do so.
Princeton cannot play both sides: it cannot be concerned for the safety of the larger community while simultaneously providing infected students with barely any resources. If the University is going to mandate that students isolate themselves when they get COVID-19, it must make that practice possible without repercussions.
Community Opinion Editor Lucia Wetherill is a sophomore from Newtown, PA. She plans to study in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), with certificates in Global Health Policy and Latin American Studies. She can be reached at email@example.com.