Skip to main content

The Office of Graduate Education hosted a town hall on COVID safety in research labs on August 3, 2020. The slides from that presentation are available here: BBSP Research Safety Guidelines – Fall 2020 Town Hall. The information discussed is also organized into the sections below.

UNC Campus Health recommends that all everyone uses this checklist every day before coming to campus:

  • Do you have new muscle aches not related to another medical condition or another specific activity (e.g. due to physical exercise)?
  • Do you feel like you may have a temperature of greater than 100.0°F?
  • Do you have sore throat, runny nose and/or congestion not related to another medical condition (e.g. allergies)?
  • Do you have a new or worsening cough that is not related to another medical condition?
  • Do you have shortness of breath that is not attributable to another medical condition?
  • Do you have recent (<5 days) loss of smell and taste?
  • Do you have new onset of vomiting or diarrhea not related to another medical condition?
  • Have you had recent close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, do not come to campus for work or class. Instead, you should take the following steps.

If you have GSHIP graduate student health insurance or use Campus Health as your primary care provider:

  1. Call your UNC Campus Health provider to request a test (919-966-2281)
  2. Self-quarantine and update your PI. You must be cleared by Campus Health before returning to work.

If you have private health insurance or do not use Campus Health as your primary care provider:

  1. Contact the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic (919-966-9119, 8:30am-4:30pm, Mon-Fri). If you meet criteria, you will be scheduled for testing typically within 4-6 hrs at the ACC Respiratory Disease Center. Testing should be covered by your insurance without out-of-pocket costs due to the CARES Act.
  2. Self-quarantine and update your PI. You must be cleared by Occupational Health before returning to work.
Visit the UNC community standards page for the latest guidelines for working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In UNC’s research buildings, each floor will be limited to 50% capacity. Labs and their departments will be expected to coordinate student, postdoc, staff, and faculty schedules accordingly. This is meant to give flexibility while still maintaining social distancing protocols.

Research buildings will require a SOM ID badge for entry in order to reduce foot traffic. For first-year students, BBSP will use the pictures taken during orientation to create your ID badge, and they should be available for pickup during the week of August 17 or August 24. Until you have the badge, you’ll have to make arrangements to enter buildings by meeting someone at the entry door.

Above all else, you have a voice in the types of activities you are and are not willing to participate in during the pandemic. Your rotation PIs and course faculty should have options for how you can meet expectations depending on your medical needs or comfort level. You should talk through mutual expectations to come to an agreement that works for everyone. Please be patient with us and each other as we’re all trying to adapt to these new working conditions. If you feel like you’re being asked to go beyond what is reasonable, contact Dave McDonald ( with your concerns.

BBSP will have disposable face masks for first-year students available for the first half of August, available for pickup in the Bioinformatics Bldg in the Office of Graduate Education (beyond the elevators to the left if entering from the main entrance). Contact Dave McDonald ( to arrange a time to pick up your disposable face mask so he can let you in the building. In mid-August, UNC will distribute kits for students including reusable cloth masks and sanitization materials, and you will be able to pick up replacements in Bondurant, Mary Ellen Jones, and MBRB lobbies. Wearing these provided masks is expected as they have been tested to be as good or better than surgical masks worn by hospital workers.

Labs will provide you with the personal protective equipment (PPE) that you will need in their space. While we are expecting everyone to remain 6 feet apart with face masks while inside, UNC’s occupational health team has said that at-the-bench training closer than 6 feet with additional PPE presents “low risk” of exposure. The additional PPE is a face mask plus a face shield, or a face mask plus goggles that overlap the mask. During the summer of 2020, UNC had no cases of transmission on-campus when using these protocols.

Rotations will vary based on the type of research conducted and the lab’s staffing schedule. Labs with purely computational projects may expect everyone to work from off-campus, but there are many labs who have their bench research up and running on-campus. Even for research projects in the lab, the expectation is that students will only be on-campus as long as necessary for particular techniques, and analysis or background reading can be done from home. We want students to follow their interests and to feel like their personal comfort level with in-person contact are being respected.

BBSP is encouraging faculty to work with first-year students to design rotation projects that are both fulfilling and suit everyone’s comfort level with the current working conditions. As in a typical year, the goal of a rotation is not to generate publishable-quality data. Your goals during rotations are to see if the PI has a mentorship style that suits you, learn how you would be a part of the research program, and get to know the other members of the lab.

Rotations will be coordinating between the PI, the rotation student, and any additional lab members who may serve as bench mentors. We have compiled much more information, including how to train in bench techniques with social distancing, on our page for faculty mentors.

Almost all of the courses for Fall 2020 will be offered virtually, except for courses with a lab component. Some courses may offer opportunities to meet for in-person discussions using social distancing protocols. This information is not fully updated in the course file on Sakai (professors are still working on their plans). If you have specific questions or concerns about the way that a course is offered, reach out to the faculty director for more information.
Following the CDC’s guidelines, UNC will not conduct widespread COVID-19 testing in asymptomatic individuals. The rationale is that the results of this testing may give people a false sense of security
Parking and transportation plans are evolving as UNC and the School of Medicine are figuring out how many people are actually planning to come to campus in the coming months. Be sure to check the general Parking & Transportation website and the student section for the latest updates.

Currently, buses to UNC’s campus are running at a maximum occupancy of 10 people with face masks required. Undoubtedly, once school starts again on August 10, the bus routes will take a few days to adjust to the increased demand. Please plan generous amounts of time for commuting on the buses. Be sure to communicate with your lab about your course schedule and transportation plans.

In a typical year, parking on-campus for students has been very limited. Since some UNC employees will be working from home this year, the parking office is expanding the number of parking permits available to students, and they are offering different and more flexible parking options. See their website (link above) for more information.

Do NOT unmask or lower your mask in lab buildings, even if you think there aren’t others around. Only unmask in designated eating areas with appropriate distancing. The current list of dining facilities and food trucks that are open is listed on the UNC Dining Services website. Outdoor tents and canopies are being installed to increase the amount of dining space available with distancing. Avoid water fountains and use straws for drinking from a container.
We don’t know what this coming year will look like in terms of COVID-19 cases or if UNC will decide to reduce on-campus operations. The current working conditions in labs have been successful so far in that the number of UNC researchers contracting coronavirus has remained relatively small.

When UNC reduced operations during the Spring 2020 semester, students and faculty did a great job of adjusting their projects and expectations. Students were still interested to join their Spring rotation labs. So while the nature of rotation projects may change, we find that students and faculty are still able to evaluate what a mentoring relationship would look like. We may have to adapt our timelines and specific requirements along the way, but we’re committed to helping our first-year students find mentors and labs that suit them.

Facilities staff are frequently cleaning high-touch surfaces. You can see the latest information on their website.

In shared lab spaces and communal eating spaces, your lab (and others nearby) will need to establish cleaning protocols and routines. Talk with your lab or your PI about their plans.

Individuals may report non-compliance by calling the Ethics Point Hotline at (866) 294–8688. Visit the Ethics Point website for additional information. You can also contact your lab’s HR representative to report non-compliance.