As research institutions in the US begin to plan for operations that look more like "normal," it's critical that we take an inclusive approach to reopening. Some labs – like the one I work in – are planning to open in a limited capacity in the next few weeks. There will be lots of restrictions in place to keep everyone safe, from temperature checks to required distancing, down to calculating the number of square feet per person. But as we reopen, we should make sure that all lab members are equally able to come to work. Here are a few questions to ask yourself, or your supervisor, as your lab plans to reopen.
Is anyone in a high risk group? What about their families and roommates?
When you read about how people at higher risk for severe illness should be extra careful, you may only think of older adults. But people with are also part of that group. You might not know that a grad student is on an immunosuppressant medication, or that a postdoc takes care of their grandparents on the weekends. How will your reopening plan impact those people? There are no easy fixes, but make sure you identify and respect people's boundaries around working in person.
Who is comfortable working alone?
Some lab work is inherently dangerous. With appropriate training and procedures, we decrease the risk of spilling large quantities of acid or starting a fire, but the risk never goes to zero. Working alone means that there might not be anyone around to help if an accident does happen. Is your institution's environmental health and safety department even working? Plus, survivors of trauma might or vulnerable as the only person in their lab, or one of few people in an entire building. To address some of these concerns, make sure your lab has emergency protocols in place and your building is secure. Allies are particularly important here: if you are not worried about working alone, you can volunteer for later shifts.
Have schools and childcare facilities reopened?
The pandemic is already having a in academia. If labs reopen before childcare options are available, it's possible that mothers won't come back to reopened labs at the same rate that fathers do. Groups could allow caregivers to set their own schedules, like working every other day or at off-hours, or continuing to work remotely until their usual childcare is restored.
I don't have all the solutions to these considerations, but I do know that we need to put people before science. If we take an equitable look at our next steps, science will be better off.