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VPR Communication on Research Return to Campus

Dear research colleagues:

I write with an update from my message of April 29, where I promised to provide more details for returning laboratory-based research to campus when we expect the state to lift the shelter-in-place order. As you saw in this morning’s communication from University leaders, Northwestern is actively preparing for a Phased Return to Campus. I am pleased to provide further guidance on how our research plan fits into the overall phased return to campus, along with instructions to help research groups prepare for this transition, which we expect will begin June 1.

You can find our guidelines for reactivating research on the Office for Research website.  These policies were developed in consultation with many University stakeholders, including the associate deans for research, a committee of chairs, faculty committees for specific research areas, units within my office and medical experts. We will continue to meet weekly to monitor these policies and to make adjustments as we learn how the policies are working, as the government issues new orders and guidance, and as the capabilities and capacity for testing increase. We will regularly communicate updates to our policies.

Within the overall University plan, the return of laboratory-based research to campus will occur in steps. Within step 2, we will initiate the return of research to our laboratory-based buildings, which will be scheduled to open over a one-week period. On May 28 we will release the schedule for when each of the buildings will open during the week of June 1.

This next step will serve as a pilot and will be characterized by a significantly reduced density of researchers in the buildings at any time as well as diligent measures including social distancing, face masks and hand hygiene practices. Consistent with the case during the stay-at-home order, if you can work effectively from home, you must continue to do so. Even for those who must work on campus, any work that can be performed at home must be.

Initially, the resumption of research does not involve non-clinical participant research. We recognize the importance of this research, and while it is more challenging because visitors must come to campus, we are still actively planning for the resumption of these studies. The IRB Office will distribute guidance regarding human research.

We are working with a faculty committee and staff from the IRB to develop guidelines for visitors coming to campus, for establishing research spaces with appropriate cleaning and for prioritizing studies for a phased ramp-up. Guidance for clinical research will be provided by the dean of Feinberg School of Medicine soon. Similarly, the research cores will distribute guidance for accessing the cores, and the CCM and IACUC Office will distribute guidance about animal research.

It is important to recognize that the plan to resume research does not fully eliminate the risk of transmission of the virus on campus. We are optimistic that our plan will allow us to gradually increase the number of researchers in laboratories as conditions allow, but our framework anticipates the possibility that we may have to pause the expansion of research, or even return to essential-only research should conditions require. While we look to resume all research, we will only do so to the extent we can minimize the risk of transmission.

Our well-being will depend on each of us following the guidance in our policy, and acting with concern towards others. For example, all of us must use face coverings when in public spaces and maintain six feet of separation whenever possible. We also urge everyone to be considerate of colleagues and custodial staff and recognize that we must adapt to a new way of performing our work in the months to come.

Both the Northwestern and the Research policies provide clear guidance for each group returning to campus. The first important step for each principal investigator will be to develop a laboratory-specific plan. This plan will use social distancing guidelines to identify the maximum occupancy for each room in the laboratory and to organize access to the laboratory. The plans could include the use of shifts. Principal investigators will establish a shared document to record the presence of members in the laboratory and must host an online meeting with their groups to explain the policy. All members must acknowledge that they understand the policy.

The Office for Research will assist your return in several ways:

  • We will provide a template for documenting your laboratory plan.
  • We developed an online training course that each member of our research community must complete prior to returning to campus.
  • We have secured sufficient quantities of PPE that Research Safety will distribute initially via a “pandemic supply kit,” along with instructions and signage that will be necessary to establish each lab prior to occupation.

We have heard questions about how we will use testing and contact tracing to mitigate the impact of infected individuals on campus. First, the capacity for testing and the methods for contact tracing continue to advance, and you should expect that our policies will evolve as well. The current testing capacity in Illinois — which now stands at approximately 25,000 per day — does not allow us to implement a comprehensive testing program, or even a proactive monitoring program at this time.

Therefore, as we begin the return of research to campus, we will provide direction on how symptomatic individuals can be tested, and how positive cases and self-isolation are reported through a Northwestern portal. For contact tracing, we will initially implement a manual process and will continuously evaluate emerging tracing technologies.

It is important to remember that researchers cannot be compelled to return to the laboratory. If you have symptoms of respiratory illness, you must stay home. If you have risk factors, I encourage you to work remotely. Undergraduates and non-university visitors are not allowed in the research spaces without my prior approval. Students, postdocs or staff members who do not feel they are ready to be on campus may continue to do their work remotely, but are encouraged to discuss with their supervisors a timeline for return. Staff members should direct any requests for job accommodation to the Office of Equity. All other requests will be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with the expectation of greater flexibility.

I want to thank each of you for your ongoing contributions to our research enterprise, especially during this exceptionally challenging time. We have remained productive during the many weeks of the pandemic, both on campus and at home, and are now ready to transition more of our work back to campus. We do expect the next weeks to present us with new challenges, but we know that together we will advance our research while also providing for our community’s well-being.

Thank you again for your positive and cooperative engagement.

Milan Mrksich
Vice President for Research