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VPR Communication—Fall Quarter COVID-19 Update

Sept. 10, 2020

Dear colleagues,

We begin Northwestern’s Fall Quarter under circumstances unique in our institution’s history, and I write to provide an update on our efforts and indicate what you can expect as you continue your research on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, I am truly impressed with the response of our research community to this challenge over the past several months. You’ve done a remarkable job adapting to difficult circumstances, whether returning to the laboratories and other campus spaces to conduct research, or transitioning to work-at-home to support our research enterprise. As you saw in this morning’s news, the recently concluded fiscal year was another outstanding one for Northwestern, with our investigators receiving $886 million in sponsored awards to further their research. Thank you for your exceptional partnership, diligence and effort as you have advanced your important work and Northwestern’s research and teaching mission. We can be proud of our resiliency and the coordinated action across the University in responding to this complex crisis.

I am also grateful for the diligence that our research community has shown in complying with our policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, the practices of masking, distancing and enhanced cleaning have proven effective since our reactivation of research in June. In the 14 weeks since that time, we have had one researcher on the Evanston campus and three researchers on the Chicago campus report positive test results. Importantly, these cases did not lead to transmission to others on campus and our contact tracing process has proven robust.

Student Return
As you know from University leadership’s Aug. 28 message, first- and second-year undergraduates will not be allowed on campus for in-person learning during the Fall Quarter, and this policy extends to not allowing these students in the laboratories for the fall term. Only third- and fourth-year students with previous experience in the lab setting will be allowed in those research spaces.

We also have received questions about the quarantine protocol for graduate students and postdocs. I want to clarify that all first-year graduate students, and other graduate students and postdocs who are returning from summer travel, must participate in Wildcat Wellness. This three-stage modified quarantine occurs Sept. 6 to 20. However, any graduate students and postdocs who have already been working on campus over the summer do not need to self-isolate. Of course everyone must continue to remain aware of and conscientiously follow our required behaviors and expectations. Of special note is the requirement for faculty, staff, or students who visit campus to complete the daily symptom tracker. As detailed yesterday in a message from SVP and Chief Risk Officer Luke Figora, the University has developed and released a new web-based Symptomtracker application to make this process easier. You can begin using Symptomtracker on Sept. 14, and the app also will be available soon for free download in the Apple App Store.

It is also important to reiterate another key tool in Northwestern’s response to the pandemic: COVID-19 testing for members of the University community. The University requires that all graduate students who come to campus, whether for classes or other purposes, receive a negative test at the start of the Fall Quarter. This is the case even if the student has been on campus over the summer.

Testing is available as follows:

  • Graduate Students: Schedule an appointment. Initial testing was available through Sept. 5. Additional testing is available Sept. 15 to 18 (Evanston campus) and Sept. 15 to 17 (Chicago campus). Find an on-campus testing location.
  • Faculty, Staff, Postdoctoral Trainees: Testing is currently available if COVID-19 symptoms develop. Contact the COVID-19 Case Management Team at 847-491-8422 if symptoms occur on campus. Contact your primary care physician if symptoms develop at home.

Periodic testing for all members of the University community will continue throughout the Fall Quarter, including both voluntary random sampling as well as focused testing for those faculty and staff in higher risk settings. Anyone who receives a positive test will be instructed to self-isolate for 14 days, either in their residence or, in the case of undergraduate students who live on campus, in dedicated on-campus quarantine residences. We also expect that as our testing capacity increases as we finalize the upfront testing of students, there will be additional testing options for postdocs working in our research laboratories. We will provide periodic updates.

As we continue to adjust to the “new normal,” I am grateful for all you have done to support our phased return to campus. I know we all would prefer to pursue our work without the complexity of this pandemic. At the same time, our community has demonstrated that it can take the steps necessary to minimize the pandemic’s impact and meet this challenge together. I continue to be encouraged by the University’s concerted and extensive response to COVID-19: We have a large, dedicated team working very hard every day to keep Northwestern’s research and teaching moving forward despite formidable headwinds. To be sure, our research community’s engagement and partnership remains crucial for our success.

I hope you and your families had a restful and safe Labor Day weekend. As we look now to the new academic year, my colleagues and I in the Office for Research remain committed and eager to working with you.


Milan Mrksich
Vice President for Research