How to get back on track?
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
Over the past two months, most of us have been hunkered down at home. Although a small fraction of the population continued to work to provide essential services (and perform critical research), most people have been living a very different life—a life of remote work and online meetings. Many businesses closed down and millions of jobs were lost. The necessary drastic measures of social distancing were very effective—the number of new cases of COVID-19 has been flattened and many places avoided a surge that they were prepared for. It is now time to begin recovering from this pandemic shock.
Within my state, the stay-at-home order has been lifted and businesses are starting to open up in phases. These phases typically involve intense planning and monitoring. Face masks and social distancing practices continue to remain in effect in all public places. Within my university, the administration has been more cautious compared to the state, and rightly so. The campus can be a high-density space and thus, appropriate preparations need to be made.
In terms of research, as I mentioned in my previous post, the experiments continue to be limited to only critical research. Almost 90% of the research activities require the use of experimentation and thus getting the on-campus (and off-campus) facilities back up and operational is critical. As a part of this process, we have already implemented the use of masks and maintenance of social distancing within our buildings. When additional people start coming in, we also need to implement further measures such as working in shifts and enforcement of room capacities. I am currently planning out these measures for my lab spaces by drafting and implementing safe operating procedures. These procedures include frequent hand-washing, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, disinfecting spaces before and after use, and of course, maintaining social distancing. Many of these measures should already be familiar to those that work in a biological laboratory and use aseptic techniques. In fact, some of our practices are more rigorous than safe operating procedures because we work with sensitive experiments and we need to avoid contamination of reagents.
Within my lab group, we are implementing a reservation system for each lab space that is used. This reservation system will help ensure that the room capacities are maintained and it will also help plan out experiments. In addition, at least for the critical research project (on developing better tests for COVID-19), I have been checking in on my group members daily to see if self-quarantining is necessary at any point. Personally, I have also been careful with symptoms especially now that the allergy season is in full swing. I have stocked up on my allergy medications: loratadine, fluticasone, and olopatadine.
Looking ahead, these measures will remain in place until a vaccine is widely available (that is, for about a year). We have already started discussing changes to teaching approaches for the Fall 2020 semester; for example, there will be no face-to-face instruction after Thanksgiving break. The classes before Thanksgiving break also need to be amenable to disruption and social distancing. One of the key challenges for me will be to find ways of engaging with the students considering that popular in-class activities (such as think-pair-share) will no longer be possible. I do have the advantage that most of my assessments are already online (and open-book). I also have recordings of all my previous lecturers although I am skeptical of how useful these will be for future delivery of the course. I will most likely have to prepare new content. I was finally starting to get a hang of the content after teaching the course twice and was now hoping to implement some engaging/fun projects, but now there might be limitations and I need to rethink my strategies.
I am hoping that the additional resources provided by the university (e.g., training on transitioning to a new course management software) are useful for the Fall semester. I also hope that the students are prepared to learn in this new way; I would love to hear about successful experiences of how others have changed their courses while maintaining engagement.