Developing your research reopening plan, and what it means for your university-wide reopening plan

Expert Insight

Developing your research reopening plan, and what it means for your university-wide reopening plan

Driven in part by governments loosening stay at home orders, universities are eager to begin “soft re-openings” and ramping up some activities wherever possible. And with students completing their spring semesters and summer coursework online, universities have the opportunity bring back faculty researchers in a limited capacity. We recently shared some of the major foci for Chief Research Officers (CROs) as they develop their phasic plans to re-open research. Most schools are already well into their first phase, as policies and procedures for essential researchers quickly scaled-up following the initial ramp down.  

This essential activity has continued while other parts of campuses have remained closed, putting research ahead of the overall university and allowing research ramp-up plans to serve as a precursor to overall university reopening plans. Thus, to create a seamless reopening process and avoid future confusion, it is crucial that CROs develop plans that can easily scale up to serve broader university-wide plans. Based on a review of extant research plans and conversations with CROs, we have organized these key takeaways to ensure a ramp up that is built for the long haul: 1) systematize the lab application process for return to campus, 2) amplify the safety mindset, and 3) develop ramp up plans that can easily reverse course or shut down.

1. Systematize lab application process for return to campus

While many researchers are keen to return to campus, some research populations and projects have more justification for returning to campus than others. With this in mind, most institutions – like Boston University, University of Oregon, and University of Connecticut – have templatized applications for PIs to what research they need to be doing on campus and how they will do it safely. Most plan applications require:

  • A summary of proposed research activities, and a justification for why on-campus access is necessary
  • A list of personnel conducting on-campus research, including staff work schedules and spaces to be used
  • Processes for maintaining physical distancing within assigned spaces
  • Procedures for cleaning and monitoring compliance (beyond those already provided)
  • If applicable, specific information is requested for the above areas related to fieldwork completed outside of the laboratory

Importantly, once an institution transitions from one phase to the next in their ramp-up plan, many applications will require updated information. This is because earlier phases require more and/or different safety protocols as compared to later ones. This led institutions – like Michigan Tech University and Yale University – to create thorough laboratory reopening checklists that include recommendations around a variety of coronavirus-relevant procedures, such as social distancing protocols, PPE recommendations, and special considerations for the IACUC and IRB.

With these systems in place, CROs can ensure campus research is systematized to ensure long-term viability should it be necessary. This process also creates a mechanism through which non-research faculty can request access to their offices and classrooms when appropriate and could be scaled to include administrative staff as well. This allows for a smooth transition into a future university-wide plan with fewer headaches or hiccups

2. Amplify the safety mindset

Researchers are accustomed to lab safety standards within their protocol, but the coronavirus requires a greater degree of personal and group protection. Capacity building around COVID-adapted research practices is crucial to a ramp-up that keeps all researchers safe and does not jeopardize the continued ramp up. University websites are a great place to start with much of this capacity building. For instance, Duke University created a “Guide for Returning to the Workplace”, which captures general workplace expectations, personal safety practices, and guidance for specific workplace scenarios. They also accompanied this guide with a video led by the Vice President of Administration. Such content shares crucial safety information in multiple mediums for easy digestion for employees who may be unsure about returning to campus. In addition, Duke University has developed content articulating best practices for mask use and a typical workday schedule for returning researchers. While simple, such information is one of the most effective ways to share information about concepts that researchers may incorrectly think are “too dumb to ask about.” Lastly, they built a sample social distancing floorplan denoting things like which rooms and benches have insufficient space for social distancing. These provide important capacity building to PIs in particular as they decide how to best use lab space. Other universities—like the University of Minnesota –have developed (or are in the early stages of developing) formal safety procedures, training materials concerning lab cleanliness, and a hotline to ensure workplace safety should issues arise. As time passes, other colleges hope to develop COVID-19 Research Safety Certification training courses, which will be required in varying degrees for different faculty and staff.

Demoing how such safety measures work for research faculty, including PPE use, symptom checking, and sign-in procedures, provide important data and practical information that universities can apply to future reopening activities. Overall, these techniques ensure campus research operations safety procedures are standardized and self-sustainable when a university-wide policy comes along.

3. Develop ramp up plans that can easily reverse course or shut down

Research ramp-up plans are only as good as their ability to quickly react to new information about the coronavirus. This requires being explicit with research personnel about the potential for future disruptions and research cutbacks due to new information or university-wide requirements. Some institutions – like the University of Oregon – have built language into each phase of their ramp-up plan stating that research activities from any present phase “must be able to shut down quickly if return to an earlier phase is required.” Boston University takes this a step further, requiring PIs to complete a Research Recovery Plan to explicitly write out a “Ramp-down Plan” to reduce capacity to only essential activities should that be required.

With these straightforward approaches to managing research expectations about potential ramp-downs, institutions can make the deflating process of future disruptions easier to manage, both mentally and logistically. University-wide plan should also include appropriate expectations regarding ramp-downs, and pull forward as much of the planning for a future disruption as possible.  

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