3 questions about ramping down faculty research labs from spring 2020—and how to answer them now

Expert Insight

3 questions about ramping down faculty research labs from spring 2020—and how to answer them now

As campuses have successfully ramped up lab activity since the hard-hitting days of March and April, the research enterprise was able to achieve a sense of semi-normalcy during the summer. This was accomplished through conservative, thorough ramp up procedures that put—and kept—safety as the first priority. Faculty continue to model positive behavior in their labs, completing daily symptom screens, maintaining distance and truncated lab time schedules, and wearing masks whenever necessary. As a result, universities did not see their COVID cases increase during research lab ramp ups.

But for most schools, fears about increased cases as part of phased re-opening plans were not founded in letting a few researchers back into the labs. Leaders knew the real challenges would emerge once undergraduates returned to campus and started interacting with lab-based faculty and graduate researchers in different spaces and capacities across campus. This fear was confirmed with the high-profile instances of universities opening just to close again days or weeks later.

These setbacks again raise the question: what should we do with the labs? As university leaders debate how far they must ramp back down to reduce their COVID cases, we reviewed the most common challenges in ramping down labs this past spring with hopes of providing guidance on how to do it again, if needed.

1. What triggers should determine when we ramp labs down?

These decisions were largely made for universities last spring, with state and local mandates requiring across-the-board reduced capacities and closures. This time around, with far fewer states and localities imposing such mandates, research and academic leaders have greater flexibility in determining when to ramp labs down and how far ramp downs should go.

But with greater flexibility comes increased complexity. Research and academic leaders must determine what triggers (e.g., number of cases) they will reference and what actions to take. Some of the factors to consider in determining these triggers and actions include:

  • Vigilance vs. lethargy in maintaining the preemptive measures from the summer, such as daily symptom screens, increased sanitation, and mask mandate adherence
  • Ability to trace professors and/or graduate students to undergraduate classes (and case clusters)
  • Individual lab responses vs. neighboring/adjoining lab responses
  • When to manage labs/buildings individually vs. campus-wide lab ramp down measures

2. How fast do we ramp down?

Again, these decisions were largely out of universites’ hands in the spring. Given that the situation varies widely by campus, research leaders are considering a number of different ramp down timelines depending on the severity of the spread. For schools without undergraduates on campus, a ramp down may be isolated to one lab or building and may only last as long as a two-week quarantine. A campus near or at full undergraduate capacity may have to treat this situation differently, and likely has a superseding university-wide framework that may force a lab ramp down under certain circumstances.

The presence of undergraduates is the wildcard variable in these calculations. While institutions with students on campus go through various phases of “open,” research labs remain in a constant state of reactive flux—attempting to continue operations at a normal pace while also being ready to shutter again at a moment’s notice. Some of these operating statuses to plan for include:

  • Near-normal fall campus activity, including in-person classes, student activities, and community/sporting events
  • Cluster quarantines, which may be limited by physical spaces (a residence hall) or by identified class or social group clusters
  • Sheltering-in-place, where students are on-campus but completing classwork virtually and limiting in-person interactions
  • Student dismissal, where students are asked to leave campus in a timely manner

Each of these scenarios will alter the operating status of research labs, but they are difficult to anticipate, making it especially hard to provide sufficient notice to researchers.

3. How can we minimize the research disruption during the ramp down?

Last spring brought a sense of solidarity for researchers asked to stay out of their labs. It was disruptive and painful, but it was largely a shared experience across all institutions. The feeling in the fall is different, with much more internal finger pointing and growing (if not peaking) frustration. Part of this frustration stems from knowing a second lab ramp down and subsequent disruptions will not be equally felt—different labs, different disciplines, and different campuses in different states will experience varying levels of interruptions, and the grass will always look greener elsewhere.

Minimizing the disruption will, again, depend on a number of the above factors. But based on feedback from spring ramp downs, there are actions research leaders can take now to ease the burden:

  • Collect or update information on who is doing what in each lab, with the intention of updating “essential” lab personnel and (re)assigning shift work priorities
  • Determine the status of each project, and prioritize access to those closest to completion
  • (Re)calibrate expected administrative workflows given upcoming (and largely unadjusted) federal proposal deadlines
  • Revisit remote work setups and see if there are new/additional needs for faculty who cannot access their labs consistently

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