Laboratory and studio-based research activity at the University of Michigan, the majority of which has been paused since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will gradually resume during the next several weeks.
The re-engagement plans, outlined May 16 in emails from President Mark Schlissel and Vice President for Research Rebecca Cunningham, follow an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer authorizing the limited reopening of laboratory research in the state.
“As the largest public research university in the nation, this is a significant development for our state and our university as we continue to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic,” Schlissel said. “We’re beginning to see how certain activities can resume in a public health-informed manner, while also understanding that work will be very different in the months ahead.”
The university anticipates at least four waves of building reopenings during May and June, beginning with a pilot wave that involves six units on the Ann Arbor campus, each reopening one or two buildings on a limited basis.
The pilot wave will include the College of Engineering, LSA, College of Pharmacy, Life Sciences Institute, Medical School, and A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Participating buildings are:
- Art and Architecture Building.
- Biomedical Science Research Building.
- Chemistry Building.
- Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building.
- G.G. Brown Building.
- Life Sciences Institute Building.
- North University Building.
- Pharmacy Building.
During the pilot wave, U-M will limit the total number of researchers returning to work.
“With guidance from public health experts, we will re-evaluate the pilot wave of buildings’ performance metrics for safety, health and compliance within the state guidelines,” Cunningham said. “We then would ideally launch a more expansive second wave of building reopenings across schools, colleges and units about two weeks after this initial wave begins.”
Since the COVID-19 restrictions took effect in mid-March, only COVID-related and other critical and essential research has been operational. The re-engagement measures apply to experimental laboratory and studio-based research. All other work that can be conducted remotely will continue to be done in that manner.
U-M will maintain current restrictions on in-person, human-subjects research. Studies with investigational treatments that provide the potential for direct therapeutic benefit that were previously approved should continue.
Buildings that don’t fall under the re-engagement schedule will remain restricted to critical approved personnel only, and those that do reopen will not do so for activities beyond approved research and critical approved matters.
Schlissel and Cunningham noted this latest development does not mean everyone in a reopened building can return. U-M still will manage the density of spaces and must abide by best public health practices.
“These are not easy decisions, and as a fellow researcher, I understand the challenges of pausing your research and scholarship endeavors, and also that the pace of this process is frustratingly slow,” Cunningham said. “But we have to get this right in order to protect the health and safety of our employees, local communities and region, and to ensure the university can proceed with a public health-informed fall academic semester.”
Schools, colleges and units have developed specific research re-engagement plans, and Cunningham encouraged researchers to work with their research leadership to obtain lab approvals and to complete the necessary training before returning to work.
She also said decisions regarding graduate students and postdoctoral researchers returning to work are shared decisions, and that researchers should communicate with their principal investigators regarding the status of their labs.
The university has created a Research Re-engagement web page with guidelines and plans for safely resuming research amid COVID-19, and the Office of Research also lists answers to frequently asked questions on its COVID-19 Research Operations web page.
Schlissel and Cunningham said that in order to eventually resume all in-person research properly, those returning to campus under this re-engagement must cooperate with the new procedures.
“This differential and staggered approach to resumption of activity will be the next great test of our resolve and compassion,” Schlissel said. “Full compliance with state and other public health guidelines will help to ensure that we’ll be able to resume more work as safely as possible. We have to accept this shared responsibility even as different parts of our university resume activity at varying speeds.”