Ithaca campus readies to reactivate research

Cornell’s Ithaca campus is making preparations to resume one of the core aspects of the university’s mission: research.

Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff announced May 22 in a message to the Cornell community that the university has been cleared by New York state to restart certain research activities in a “staged, limited manner.”

Noncritical research on the Ithaca campus was suspended March 15; only research deemed essential for the understanding and reduction of COVID-19 was allowed to continue. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced May 29 that the Southern Tier was among the five upstate areas cleared to enter Phase 2 of reopening, allowing professional office activities – including research labs – to restart.

In a follow-up message May 29, Kotlikoff said the Phase 2 reopening excluded a full campus reopening at this time.

Scientific laboratory research related to the general categories of health and disease, agriculture/food and national defense, and research that supports essential businesses was approved to begin as soon as May 29 on the Ithaca campus, provided a set of safety precautions are met, Kotlikoff wrote in the May 22 message. Buildings and facilities must be cleared for reopening; personal protective equipment must be available for personnel; and all labs, studios and other research/scholarly programs must submit research reactivation plans to be approved by the department chair or center director, the college dean and the vice provost for research.

Only faculty, staff and students who are already in the Ithaca region will be permitted to return to their labs. Individuals who are returning from outside the region will need to self-quarantine before entering Cornell facilities.

The first stage of reactivation does not include activities in New York City, or creative and artistic practices.

“We look forward to being able to restart these additional research and scholarly programs and facilities over the coming weeks, as New York state clears additional restart phases for our regions,” Kotlikoff wrote.

The provost also shared the final report from the university’s Research and Operations Reactivation Committee, an advisory group of faculty, staff and students that has spent the past four weeks developing recommendations to safely restart research on campus.

The report provides guidelines and checklists for reactivation, and protocols for the cleaning and reopening of facilities. For example, researchers and staff who return to campus must follow employee health protection procedures and complete safety training for COVID-19. Employees must complete a mandatory health screening assessment before entering the workplace each day and must practice social distancing while at work.

The report recommends that undergraduate researchers should only rarely be included in the early stages of reactivation, and only if they are already in the Ithaca region and have key skills required for the research. Researchers who can work effectively from home should continue to do so.

During a follow-up town hall forum on May 27, Kotlikoff said that as limited research activities resume on campus, the university will ramp up additional protective steps to ensure the safety of the Cornell community, such as daily temperature checks for all individuals who come to campus, and virus testing.

“We will stand up these surveillance programs for our community as we move into additional phases, and we won’t go further in terms of significantly densifying our labs and other support spaces until we have those things in place,” Kotlikoff said, adding that all university actions will follow state guidelines.

As lab operations and other academic programs gradually resume, the ways that researchers collaborate may change due to social distancing.

“I believe we really need to rethink everything that we do in the lab,” said Emmanuel Giannelis, vice provost for research, who participated in the town hall along with Rick Burgess, vice president for facilities, and moderator Paula Cohen, associate vice provost for life sciences.

Building managers, department chairs and college deans will work together to ensure that the density population in buildings does not exceed a maximum capacity of 33%. The university has reporting mechanisms in place should any students or staff feel pressured into working in conditions they believe are unsafe, Giannelis said.

Giannelis said that if stage one is successful, the next stage could potentially double the campus capacity to two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels in mid-July, and possibly return to full capacity in August. However, those projections were very aspirational, he said.

Before any additional steps are taken, Kotlikoff said, additional guidelines are needed to specify what type of testing will be conducted and what the travel policy will be.

“As we go further, we will initiate more safety steps – all of this in place while we’re also thinking about instruction in the fall,” Kotlikoff said. “Working groups of faculty, staff and students are working intensely on trying to think about how we might do that safely, without having made any decisions of whether we’re, in fact, going to have a residential fall or not.”

A virtual town hall meeting June 3 will address that issue.

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Abby Butler