University libraries and the Michael C. Carlos Museum will open with card access only beginning June 1. /Hagar Elsayed

The University released a three-phase plan for restarting summer research and lab activity in a May 15 email to faculty, staff and graduate students. The plan includes safety implementation benchmarks that, if met by labs, may lead to a broader reopening of on-campus research. 

Starting May 20, faculty, staff and students currently on or returning to campus will undergo coronavirus testing and research could begin as early as June 1, as core research facilities, the University’s libraries and the Michael C. Carlos Museum open to those with card access only.

Whether the guidelines are followed successfully will determine the expansion of research activity throughout summer, according to the plan. 

The University previously announced the curtailment of all non-essential research on March 23 following similar measures by other research institutions.

“At present, there are no governmental limitations on Emory’s ability to begin to expand current research and scholarly activities beyond those that are deemed necessary,” the guidelines read. 

The first phase states that research programs or “units” will be responsible for planning the distribution of personal protective equipment and sanitizing materials, as well as establishing specific safety guidelines for their work environment. Additionally, schools will be required to submit their plans to the Office of the Provost by May 25 for evaluation, which must be in accordance with a planning template provided in the document.

The second phase includes a small-scale restart of core research facilities and the opening of the University’s libraries and the Michael C. Carlos Museum on May 28. Graduate students will be able to return on May 31 and can conduct research if it is “necessary to maintain or establish research initiatives related to their academic progress.”

Dean of Laney Graduate School Lisa Tedesco, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Jonathan Lewin and the University’s human resources department will monitor all on-campus activities from May 28 to June 21 and evaluate everything from “custodial cleaning and disinfection” to “shuttle and parking status.” 

Research labs will also be monitored for their ability to adhere to safe practices, which includes the use of personal protective equipment, 6-foot distancing and staggered work shifts, and could face “postponement or termination of the specific research activities,” should they violate safety procedures. 

During phase one and two, visitors will not be permitted to enter campus facilities and all buildings will be card access only. 

Phase three of the guidelines, which is expected to begin on June 21, will include the “re-opening of broader on-campus research activities” while maintaining safety guidelines. This phase has no specific end date and is contingent upon the success of on-campus infection control measures. 

Associate Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Heemstra, principal investigator of the Heemstra Lab, said she sees little issue in adhering to safety procedures in her work at her lab, which studies nucleic acid and their newfound roles in bioimaging. 

“A lot of things chemists do normally ensure safety,” Heemstra said. “Surface transmission is already part of our safety culture … and the University has already given us guidelines regarding occupancy.” 

Heemstra emphasized the importance of labs reopening for students working to advance their careers, adding that her department was anticipating the reopening of labs and research activities. 

“Adapting research to a remote environment means not doing the research that you are supposed to be doing or not making progress towards the goals we are being funded for,” Heemstra said. “We are excited to get back to doing the research we love – we would never want to do that if it meant doing things that are unsafe, but we think that the way the University is doing this seems very well organized.”

Professor of Biology Robert Liu, principal investigator of the Liu Lab, which studies neuroethology, also emphasized the importance of students returning to conduct research.

“While there are some things you can do [remotely], there are a lot of things you miss out on – if you are not doing research related to COVID … you haven’t been doing anything,” Liu said. “There are a lot of junior faculty, postdocs and graduate students for whom this ramp down period has put a major pause on their careers, so being able to ramp back up to ensure some continuity for them is going to be very important.” 

Both Liu and Heemstra said they learned about the reopening guidelines through rumors and unofficial channels, but were not told directly until the May 15 email. Nevertheless, when asked about the May 25 timeline to plan for reopening, Liu said he has had enough time to collaborate with his researchers and feels prepared. 

“I think everybody has been preparing … the timetable is feasible,” Liu said. “I think this period of roughly three weeks … is very important [and that] it is important to get a feel on what difficulties might occur and come up with solutions before we try to expand.”