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VPR Communication: Next Steps in the Phased Return to Campus

July 2, 2020

Dear colleagues,

I am writing to provide an update on our progress during Step 3 of Northwestern’s phased return of research to campus.

As you know, our efforts throughout June have represented the “pilot” stage of reactivating campus activity. This phase focused on returning our laboratory-based research at approximately 50 percent density and reactivating human participant research. We are grateful for the robust planning of individual groups, the collaboration of the schools and departments with our office, and the responsible adherence to our guidelines that our research community has shown, all of which has contributed to a smooth resumption of research. Our success to this point has been aided by positive public health developments across Illinois, allowing the Governor to initiate Phase 4 of the “Restore Illinois” plan on June 26, and the city following on June 29.

In light of these developments, we are now able to modify our existing guidance and take further steps to modestly increase research activity on Northwestern’s campuses. The following changes will go into effect July 6.

  • Occupancy in research labs and spaces in buildings that have re-opened may increase from a current maximum of 50 percent to a new maximum of 65 percent of normal density. The number of researchers that can be present in each group must still be capped at levels that allow for strict social and physical distancing, even if that requires a density of researchers that is smaller than the maximum. While individual labs may now exceed the generally published 50 percent state occupancy level, Northwestern will monitor overall building and floor occupancy to ensure alignment with government guidelines.
  • We still encourage any research activity that can be performed at home to continue being done from home during July, but we will now permit this research to return to campus in those buildings that have been opened by Facilities. Those groups who choose to return are required to file a Pandemic Research Plan as described in earlier communications from each school and must limit the number of researchers present at any time to conform with the social distancing guidelines. All researchers must complete the “Pandemic Essentials: Research On Campus” training course prior to returning to campus.
  • Undergraduate students who are significant contributors to the research programs can return to our laboratories. We expect that undergraduates who return are integral to their research team and are familiar with the research space and activities therein. Those who are new to the team or interesting in “shadowing” are not permitted on campus at this time. Undergraduates must also complete the “Pandemic Essentials: Research On Campus” training course and complete the Student Attestation form prior to returning to campus.
  • We will now require the use of masks in research spaces, in addition to common spaces, in research buildings on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses. The only exceptions are if a person is working alone in a private office or working with hazardous materials that the mask might concentrate, resulting in a dangerous situation. You should direct any questions to Research Safety.
  • Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will continue to have the option of performing work at home. See our COVID-19 Reporting Policy for how to report any concerns, and to learn how we address reports.

Principal investigators are responsible for ensuring that all members of their group have completed the “Pandemic Essentials” training course and are familiar with any changes to the lab plan.

As has been the case since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will continue to work closely with public health authorities and Northwestern medical experts to adjust our policies and practices as necessary. We will provide more guidance as circumstances permit us to further increase our on-campus research activity. Remember also to visit the University’s COVID-19 and Campus Updates website and the Office for Research COVID-19 website for information and resources.

Again, I want to acknowledge the exceptional partnership of many Northwestern stakeholders — senior administrators, deans, staff members, PIs and their teams — in contributing to the smooth return of our research activity to campus. We all recognize that COVID-19 continues to present a significant challenge and will demand our continued diligence in the weeks and months ahead as we support research on our campuses. We can be proud of our efforts together to this point, and I look forward to building on what we have achieved.

As always, I welcome your feedback as we strive to be responsible and remain agile in our response to the pandemic while advancing Northwestern’s exemplary research enterprise.


Milan Mrksich

Vice President for Research