5-29-20 Town Hall for BGS Students on Research Resumption - Recording and Q&A

Recording of Town Hall Event

Questions and Answers in BGS Town Hall on Research Resumption, 5-29-20 


Q. What informed the University's decision to move to Phase I and what will inform the decision to move forward to Phase II?

A. Decisions are being made based on data on the efficacy of safety measures. As data evolves to indicate that our protective measures are working, decisions will be made to progress from one phase to the next.

Q. Does the University have a plan in place to ramp-down research again in the event that a second wave of COVID hits? What are the factors that will dictate whether another ramp-down is necessary?

A. The University is prepared to ramp-down research if necessitated by a second wave. The University will look to local, state, and national public health agencies for guidance and will consider the efficacy of local and campus safety measures in making its decision. 

Q. Why are we reopening now, when we expect another wave will result in research shut down? Why should I order mice and start experiments when I expect to have to sac them within the next several months? I simply don't see the need to put so many people at risk when we'll just be ramping back down soon.

A. Hopefully, you can make your decision for yourself, by your thoughtful consideration of whether to opt in at this time. None of us can know how the pandemic will continue to play out. You might consider that this is a reason for phased re-opening with clear guidelines for masking, hand-washing and social distancing; it is not a full re-opening. If you are feeling coerced in any way, please reach out. It is also important to discuss your research plans with your PI so they can add their perspective on the benefit:risk ratio with regard to starting the experiment.

Q. How will the university respond to positive cases after reopening? Will the lab(s) be closed? How will the student be supported?

A. As stated above, the University may ramp back down if necessitated by the pandemic, and this could mean research in individual labs will be suspended. If that happens, BGS plans to continue to support students in every way possible.

Q. In terms of ramping down, will this occur if there is a surge of cases when the state fully opens, or only if there is a surge of cases at Penn?

A. The University will be monitoring cases on campus and beyond and will be making decisions in communication with city and state agencies.


Q. For rising 2nd year students who have yet to officially join a thesis lab (because we are still a rotation or independent study student), are we allowed to opt-in during phase I to perform rotation/independent study - related research that is not covid-19 related?

A. Yes, 2nd years may opt in.  We fully expect everyone to be compliant with the conditions set forth in Phase I documentation: The lab will have been approved for Phase I opening, density in the environment will not exceed 20%, and a plan is in place for your training and supervision as a rotation student while maintaining the requisite social distancing.  If these conditions are not met you should raise the issue with your PI, or your graduate group chair.

Q. If I plan on going in for only one day to complete a short experiment, do I have to opt in and opt out when I am done?

A. You will need to "Opt in" for any potential work in lab. You can leave your status as "Opt in" after your 'short experiment'. There is no requirement that you actively Opt out.

Q. Is "opt in" an ongoing process? If I don't plan to return to lab until later this summer, do I need to opt in now?

A. No; this is an ongoing process. You can “Opt in" later.

Q. I am a graduate student in Epidemiology. I am working in a computational lab and we plan to continue working from home at this time. However, I am the essential person for the lab, and if there is an emergency, I am expected to be on campus. In this case, should I opt-in at this time? Even though I am not back on campus regularly for research.

A. Yes, you should opt in if you plan to come to campus during phase I or II.  

Q. Am I able to opt in if I live with an active health care worker?

A. Yes, you would be allowed to opt-in.

Q. Is there a point at which opt-in will no longer be optional? When?

A. Phase III (and not before), per the Guidelines.  No one knows when we will reach Phase III. Anyone facing risk due to underlying health issues or family needs should work with their advisors and graduate group chairs to develop needed accommodations.

Q. Is it really an "opt-in" system if people are under pressure by their PIs, the university, to produce wet laboratory research?

A. The Provost’s Office created the opt-in rule for PhD students (and postdocs). The University and BGS absolutely do not want any student to return to the lab under pressure from the PI. Students who feel pressure to opt-in should consult with anyone with whom they feel comfortable. Options include graduate group chair, thesis committee members, other trusted faculty, department chair, BGS, student organization leaders, EVDCSO, Vice Provost for Research, or Vice Provost for Education. We stand behind your choice.


Q. If I am currently quarantining outside of Philadelphia, and I return, I understand I have to self-isolate for two weeks. If I live with roommates who are also BGS students, do they also have to self-isolate before returning to lab?

A. Anyone should self-quarantine as much as possible for the first two weeks after relocating. You and your roommates should follow CDC Guidelines for sharing households safely.

Q. Is there a plan for testing or contact tracing for those returning?

A. Currently the plan is to do testing and contact tracing only when a person exhibits symptoms. Students who have questions about testing or contact tracing should contact Student Health.  As the technology evolves, testing and/or contact tracing may be implemented for people who are asymptomatic as well.

Q. So to make sure, if coming from out of Philadelphia is it a recommendation or a requirement to self-isolate?

A. It is not a requirement, as it is not enforceable. All members of the Penn community are expected to observe guidelines for the health and safety of themselves and others. Someone who has self-isolated in a nearby state for several weeks and who drives a car non-stop to their apartment, which has not been touched by anyone since March, will carry fewer risks than someone who travels by public transit or lives with others.  But to be safe, we strongly recommend a 2 week period of self-isolation for anyone coming back to the area before they return to the lab. We also recommend discussing such plans with your PI and lab members.  Because lab work often occurs in a shared space, the input of your lab mates may be something you consider as part of your decision.


Q. My PI said that labs have to get approved to resume research. When do the approvals start going through?

A. The approval process for individual labs is handled through the home department of the PI. That process is already in place and the PIs are submitting such plans now. Plans must be approved by the department chair and the school.

Q. What constitutes "prioritized" research vs. "essential" research?

A.  The Vice Provost for Research gives these examples of “essential” research:

•Activity that if discontinued would generate significant data and sample loss

•Activity that if discontinued would pose a safety hazard

•Activity that maintains critical equipment in facilities and laboratories 

•Activity that maintains critical samples and animal populations 

•COVID-19 related activity that has a timeline for deployment that could address the current crisis

•Clinical trial activity that if discontinued would negatively impact the patient’s care

•Activity necessary for delivery of remote instruction

“Prioritized” research is determined at the department level.

Q. Will a very detailed diagram + plan will be sent out?

A. The local plan will be determined by the PI and the home department. The details will be distinct for each building, floor, and lab given the differences in layouts.

Q. Will we be able to view the approved lab-specific plan before opting in? My PI has not shared this information with us.

A. It is expected that the PI will share the lab’s plan with the lab members once the plan is approved. You should wait to opt-in until you understand the lab’s plan.

Q. How will this work for big labs? Not all labs are following the 20% density part. How will this be enforced if the PI won't do so?

A. Lab plans, regardless of a lab’s size, will require that at any given time, no more than 20% of lab members be present in the lab. For some labs, whose members all opt-in, this may mean that every lab member comes to lab in phase I, but only in short shifts and/or only on certain days.  If you have questions about your lab’s situation, consult with your PI or other trusted faculty.

Q. Are labs doing COVID-19 research also going to be observing the 20% density rule? Or are they exempt because of the essential research?

A. Labs doing COVID19 research will also be observing the 20% density rule.  


 Q. Will BGS provide PPE if students need it?

 A. The individual labs and departments will be providing PPE. EHRS will also be a source of PPE. As in the past, labs will continue to provide goggles and gloves. Labs will also provide surgical masks for use in the lab. It is suggested that everyone store their masks in the lab in a paper bag as they can be reused for up to a week. You should have your own mask for your travel back and forth to lab. Your personal mask does not need to be of the same grade as the masks used in the lab.

Q. Thermometers are hard to get right now and are crucial for symptom monitoring. Would BGS consider helping students get thermometers if they need them?

A. Unfortunately, thermometers are hard for everyone to get now. The research planning committees are aware of this issue and trying to source thermometers for use by campus members who need them.

Q. If we have to bring our personal laptops to and from lab, should we be sanitizing our phones/computers/anything else we bring when we leave the lab AND when we get home? How do we find a balance when we're going in and out?

A. The goal of going into lab is to focus on research that needs to be done in person, so it is hoped that computer use is minimized in the lab. That said, we recognize that many experiments have incubations and or require you to look at information on your computers/phones while you are in the lab. We recommend that you wipe these items down when you arrive and when you leave. If you are the only one using the computer/phone, this should be sufficient. It is important that you remember not to wear gloves that have been used in the lab on your personal items as lab gloves may carry harmful chemicals and lab hazards.You make these decisions everyday regarding how to minimize spread of the chemicals and biological agents you use in the lab. You should apply these same principles to preventing spread of the virus from surfaces until we have more data on the rates of transmission from these sources. 


Q. I am trying to set up a rotation this summer, but with the 20% rule we are a little unclear on how a rotation would work and if it is possible, since I would need training from the post-doc in the lab. Is there university or program guidance on what to do in situations where you need training especially if you are in a small lab so 20% is really less than 1 person?

A. You are able to start a rotation.  If you and the lab post-doc can be 6 feet apart while training and disinfect any equipment between use, then this should work out.  The 20% refers not only to numbers but time and density of space.  As long as the density is low enough to maintain social distancing and time in space is minimized to only when actual experiments are being done, this is possible as long as it is in the mentor’s approved research plan.

Q. What will the protocol be if someone in your lab or a neighboring lab tests positive? Will we be required to self quarantine? How will we be notified?

A. The lab needs to contact EHRS immediately. Contact tracing for faculty and staff is being handled by EHRS. Contact tracing for students is being handled by Student Health. Those offices will handle notifications, quarantine requirements, etc. 

Q. What if my lab SEEMS to be taking safety seriously prior to reopening, but after I opt-in I find that researchers in my area are not taking safety precautions, respecting social distancing, etc.  Can I opt back out without facing backlash?

A. Yes, you can reverse your opt-in choice at any time, and for any reason. If you have concerns about negative consequences for such a decision please take that to your grad group chair, or other trusted faulty. We will absolutely support your right to make this choice.

Q. What ramifications are there for labs who are clearly flouting the guidelines and what protections will there be for the trainees in those labs especially if the PIs are in positions of power?

A. We encourage you to report any violations of safety guidelines.  You can do so by phone or online at the compliance hotlines, 215-P-COMPLY. In addition, each department/floor will have a designated contact for reporting concerns. PSOM and all schools at the University are taking this very seriously, and I know of at least one case where a violation was reported and the lab was threatened with shutdown until Phase III if noncompliance continued.

Q. How will you enforce that there is no backlash though? Even if you anonymously report, it won't be difficult to figure out where the report came from. How can you absolutely guarantee that PIs will not retaliate if you report they are not complying?

A. The graduate groups, BGS, PSOM, and University are all taking lab safety very seriously, especially in the context of the pandemic.  While we cannot make absolute guarantees, we will do everything possible to prevent backlash and to mitigate any conflicts between students and PIs.


Q. The research resumption training instructed that researchers are not allowed to work alone in the lab - why is that? Wouldn't that be the safest option?

A. Under Phase I there will be quite reduced occupancy across the whole space. One way to think about your good question is that there needs to be some balance between maintaining social distancing and having (few) other personnel there in case of accidents.  Having other lab members present when using chemicals and biologic hazards in the lab is a tenet of the EHRS lab safety training and should be preserved with social distancing during the pandemic.

Q. I only feel safe coming in if I am the only one in lab. Is this allowed? My research does not involve dangerous chemicals, fire, or glassware. Before COVID, I would come in on weekends or stay late and work by myself.

A. You may make the choice to not opt-in for any reason. Discuss the resumption plan with your PI to see if the working conditions meet your needs and you can continue to work safely in isolation.


Q. Can graduate students be given access to vivariums before 1:30 PM? I understand that this regulation was put in place for the safety of ULAR technicians, but unfortunately this means graduate students without cars might have to walk to/from lab at night to do essential facility work.

A. You should have your PI discuss this issue with the ULAR manager for your facility. In some cases there has been room for flexibility, but both the lab and ULAR need to be on board.

Q. Any information about cores and what their policies will be? Many experiments are reliant upon their services.

A. Cores are preparing plans for reopening.  When a core decides to reopen will depend on the safety of operating the core, their ability to perform their activities with social distancing and their staffing.


Q. What about those with underlying health issues or that live with others that may have health issues?

A. Everyone’s health must come first. It is one of the main reasons for voluntary opt-in. You have every right to choose to not opt-in.  If you experience any concerns about this, please reach out.

Q. If we suspect we may be sick where do we get tested - do we contact student health to get tested or go through Penn medicine or through the Philadelphia department of health?

A. Students think they may be sick should leave the lab immediately and contact Student Health for testing and guidance: (215)746-3535. Students should also notify the PI immediately, who will contact EHRS. Additional information is on the EHRS Covid-19 site

Q. What about antibody testing?

A.Antibody testing is not currently part of the planning process because it is not sufficiently reliable in determining whether someone may be a risk to others. Someone with a new infection can shed virus prior to having antibodies.  More concerning, some of the antibody tests have a high false positive rate and therefore it appears that such an individual would already be immune to the virus, but in fact, they are still vulnerable. Finally, data on whether someone who has recovered from infection can be infected again remains limited as we are early in the pandemic.  Until antibody tests can predict who is resistant to infection, they cannot be used to determine who is safe from infection. 

Q. If someone thinks that they have symptoms of covid, should they go into Student health to get tested, or stay home to avoid spreading it? If people are staying home instead of getting tested, how will we do contact tracing/monitor the curve on campus?

A. Any student with symptoms should call Student Health for guidance regarding testing and self-quarantining, as well as for contact tracing.

Q. How will this work for us during flu season as many experts have warned we will see a new wave. It will be difficult to differentiate flu vs covid symptoms. Do we self-isolate and does the entire lab isolate until tested?

A. These are thoughtful points. Given the variety of symptoms that can be COVID19 and their overlap with a number of other presentations (e.g. the common cold, allergies, the flu, pneumonia, etc), it will be important to distinguish COVID19 from other illnesses. If you have any symptoms that could be COVID19, you should contact Student Health for guidance, and you should also discuss your symptoms with your PI, who may wish to consult EHRS. 

Q. I have a medical condition that requires frequent eating which would mean I will be off PPE more frequently than others. Especially for my school there is only one designated eating area on my floor (which is very small). Who should I reach out to in case things get impossible? What's the PSOM policy on this?

A. First and foremost, you should be limiting your time in the lab to only what is needed to be completed in person. If you can work your eating schedule around this, that would be best. If you do need to eat, it will be important that you coordinate use of the common eating area with others in your research environment to ensure everyone’s safety.  There is some hope that the summer may provide another opportunity to eat in outdoor locations where there is greater ventilation and space. It is important that wherever you eat, you disinfect the space before and after you eat. Finally, if you are not able to coordinate acceptable conditions, you may consider delaying your return to lab until you feel you can manage your eating behaviors with safe social distancing. Your health is the priority. 

Q. What protections will there be for BGS students who have to take leave due to family members dying of COVID? Do you promise to allow them to stay on health insurance?

A. Students have the option to continue on Penn Student Health Insurance during their leave. Our leave policy can be found on our website


Q. How do the rules/guidelines apply to BGS students that work in non-Penn buildings (i.e. Wistar, CHOP, etc). I know these buildings have different policies (i.e. more relaxed) than what BGS is proposing. How should we navigate this difference?

A. As Jon Epstein said in his Town Hall for BGS and BPP, when in doubt you should abide by the more stringent regulations. Feel free to reach out about your specific situation.

Q. Are there different procedures/timelines for human subjects research done in the main HUP hospital building?

A. At this time bench research has been prioritized over return of clinical research apart from COVID19 related studies.  It is expected that clinical research will return as clinical operations return to normal. Clinical operations are beginning to ramp up also and this should permit clinical operations.  More information can be found on slide 36 of the PSOM research resumption plan


Q. I think we are all aware of the BRB elevator situation. I see now that the occupancy limit is going to be 4. Regardless, how are we going to make sure that people who need the elevators are prioritized? How will we ensure the stairwells are not overcrowded?

A. Our understanding is that there will be signage for every set of elevators, addressing some of these questions. In addition, people will be encouraged to use the elevators to go up and the stairs to go down.  There will be fewer PSOM entrances during Phase I, and the entrances will be monitored.  BRB will be one of the PSOM entrances. Security guards will provide guidance on navigating through the entrances and using elevators. It is also recommended that people stagger their arrival to buildings to prevent the accumulation of people waiting to use the elevators.  

Q. Will Penn or BGS provide any sort of on campus work space outside of the lab for students to work during incubation times for experiments? For example, most student desks are in their lab space and if we are required to socially distance in the lab might be helpful to provide open lecture halls or library space where students who need to work on campus can safely spread out when not at the bench?

A. It is our understanding that students should only be in the lab while performing experiments.  Further, the lab density is expected to be less than 20%.  We recommend that the lab plan to maintain appropriate density include the ability for students to sit at desks during incubation periods.  We do not have sufficient classroom space to accommodate students sitting in the space.  Use of such space would necessitate decontamination and require scheduling.  Outdoor spaces should be available and hopefully the weather cooperates for the summer.


Q. Will graduation expectations be adjusted because of this? I know a lot of upper years are concerned and don't want to have a 7+ year PhD.

A. We do not expect there will be any formal change in standards. However, the thesis committees assess a student’s progress individually, taking into account all circumstances that impact progress. We expect that the research hiatus would be a significant aspect of that assessment for affected students.

Q. Will students remain supported (with all BGS benefits) if this crisis continues until the fall or next spring?

A. That is our expectation, subject to sustained levels of federal funding for research and training.


Q. Is travel via public-transit (trolley, MFL, etc..) to campus allowed for return during Phase I?

A. It is permitted but discouraged. Other options are being discussed, including PennBus, ride sharing and free parking, expanded biking. 

Q. I am a graduate student who lives away from campus and usually takes SEPTA Regional Rail into lab. My understanding is that Penn is urging people to avoid public transportation and that they have made parking free in several lots around campus. Will the parking situation change or will we still have access to free (or daily rated) parking (at least during phase 1)? I also noticed that I cannot purchase a summer parking pass, so I am worried about parking availability as regional rail is my only other option if I cannot reliably access parking near campus.

A. Yes. The Parking Office issued this statement: “Commuters with Penn-Affiliated Identification. Commuters who are not permit holders but can display a valid Penn, UPHS, or Penn affiliate identification card upon exiting the parking facility also will be allowed to park for free in Penn garages (not lots) if space is available.”

Q. Could the boundaries be temporarily extended for the walking escort program for any students who end up working late night shifts? If not, what alternatives do students have to ensure their safety getting to and from work safely if they do not have a car but live within walking distance?

A. We don’t know but will look into whether the walking escort program may be changed. However, at least some schools are not planning to allow anyone to conduct research during late night shifts.

Q. For students who decide to opt-in but rely on public transportation, is the Pennbus still considered public transportation? If not, will the schedule of the busses be extended to include a morning schedule instead of an afternoon-only schedule as it normally is? Are the routes going to be extended to cover more areas in Center City?

A. Our understanding is that the Penn Bus will be implementing new practices for cleaning and social distancing and that alternate schedules are being considered as part of the University’s reopening planning. We will monitor the website for information: https://cms.business-services.upenn.edu/transportation/

Q. Is Septa implementing changes to reduce risks for riders?

A. Yes: http://septa.org/covid-19/service-information.html#rail

If you have questions that are not addressed here, please reach out to Judy Jackson or others in BGS.