Lukas Flippo

Away for several months because of the coronavirus pandemic, Yale’s researchers are finally starting to return to their labs. But even though University leadership gave the greenlight for a limited move-in as early as last Monday, many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows say they are uneasy about coming back to campus. 

As coronavirus cases continue to rise across the state, some researchers have criticized what they see as an arbitrary date at which some of Yale’s labs could repopulate. Little communication exists with the administration, they told the News, and guidelines surrounding personal protective equipment — made necessary amid a global pandemic — are unclear. Dozens of graduate students and postdocs signed an open letter to Yale administrators dated May 28, arguing for a later start date and pledging not to return until it happens.

“We — scientists from across the graduate school — write to communicate our concerns with the lack of detailed plans and protections as Yale aims to move into Phase 1 of reopening during the COVID-19 global pandemic,” the letter states.

Lab work all but halted for most Yale scientists since March, with exceptions for those whose work was deemed critical for understanding the virus. After Lamont announced that university research in Connecticut could begin on May 20, the University agreed to reopen its labs in a three-phase process, starting on June 1. According to University spokesperson Karen Peart, the second phase — which will include research of “all types” — is slated to begin sometime in July.

In an email to the News, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean of Science Jeff Brock wrote that Phase 1 of reopening is non-compulsory, and that no one is forced to return to their labs if they do not feel safe. He added that the University has “made it very clear” that lab leaders are not to compel trainees to return. His team has “taken great care” over several weeks to ensure labs are safe for those who decide to work in their labs, Brock added.

But even before the first phase began last Monday, graduate students reported feeling concerned, frustrated and confused about why these particular dates were chosen.

A number of these students organized a Zoom call on May 22 to gauge this concern among their colleagues. The call was attended by 145 graduate students, according to Scott Gigante GRD ’23, a rising fifth-year PhD student in the computational biology and bioinformatics (CBB) program who worked on the letter.

Gigante said at the meeting, one-third of the students were either unsure about going back or had decided to not return on June 1. They concluded that a pledge would be the best way to get the administration’s attention and to voice their concerns.

“We want to make sure that the University has a plan going forward that isn’t going to systematically advantage certain forms of research over others as apparently more valuable,” said Kyra Thrush GRD ’24, a rising third-year PhD student in the CBB program, who signed the pledge. “We also want to make sure that students are given the opportunity to return as a collective as soon as possible.”

The questions expressed in the letter range from those about testing to personal protective equipment. The students also asked for certain requests to be met before they would feel safe returning to research, such as making a better contact-tracing plan and providing better accommodations for disabled students.

The letter — which was drafted by Concerned and Organized Graduate Students — was sent to the administration on May 28. Lynn Cooley, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, then announced a town hall to take place the next day to discuss the reopening. Some graduate students who attended this meeting told the News that they did not leave feeling reassured.

“We really did not get clear or straightforward answers, and based on that, we were concerned that we wouldn’t have our voices heard by the June 1 reopening,” said Holly Steach GRD ’22, a rising fifth-year immunobiology PhD student who was involved in the writing of the letter. 

One of the trainees’ primary apprehensions is the arbitrary nature of June 1 as a reopening deadline. While May 20 is a state-mandated date, June 1 was chosen by Yale, and many of the graduate students and postdocs believe the administration did not give itself enough time to fully prepare by choosing this day.

“It’s our first rodeo. It’s new for everyone. This is everyone’s first pandemic,” said Maikel Boot, a signatory on the pledge who is postdoc in microbial pathogenesis and the chair of the Yale Postdoctoral Association. “There needs to be a certain feeling of safety and security before someone feels comfortable going back, and I don’t think that feeling can be created overnight, which is sort of the idea with the reopening.”

Boot added that it would make more sense to test their reopening plan at a smaller scale and then to follow it with feedback from lab leaders and trainees alike. 

The administration has allowed individual departments to formulate their own specific plans for how their labs will function as they reopen. For Steach, the lack of a uniform protocol is concerning.

“I think this essentially puts everyone’s safety as the lowest common denominator because we share spaces and buildings,” Steach said. “If the University were essentially regulating these procedures, setting safety measures that would be followed across departments, that would include the support staff and custodial staff, and it wouldn’t leave them out in the cold.”

One of the signatures on the letter is from the Yale Graduate Student Disability Alliance. The group also drafted their own statement regarding the June 1 reopening and expressed their refusal to support such a rushed process.

“The Graduate Student Disability Alliance will not support a reopening of labs for nonessential research until the administration makes substantial improvements in its plan to support disabled and chronically ill students and staff,” the statement writes. “In the midst of the pandemic responses that have consistently and often willfully sacrificed the safety and well-being of individuals with disabilities, Yale must ensure that its policies are unmarred by an ableist agenda that unjustly disadvantages members of its community.” 

The statement also emphasized the fact that current protocol discourages researchers from using elevators and eating during their shifts and recommends that they walk or bike to work. These guidelines are unquestionably hard to follow for disabled individuals, they said.

And even though attendance isn’t compulsory, some trainees believe that their lab leaders could still coerce them to come in, even if not directly. While Brock noted that researchers could decide for themselves whether to return, Thrush highlighted that social pressure can also be a factor in researchers’ decisions.

“If everyone else in your lab is going in, you probably feel guilty if you’re the one person that just doesn’t feel safe because everyone else is doing productive work, and you’re being coerced by a group mentality,” Thrush said. “And that’s different than having a [principal investigator] that’s forcing you to come in.” 

Brock also wrote in his June 4 email that all personnel returning to their labs have been offered testing. Out of over 1,000 tests given, there was only one asymptomatic COVID-19 positive case reported, he wrote.

For some researchers with children, the University’s initial lack of communication on childcare provision was alarming when considering a June 1 reopening. Esen Sefik, a postdoc in immunobiology who has a toddler, said that as of June 1, “there is nothing coming out of Yale about it.”

According to emails obtained by the News, the University has recently expanded childcare opportunities for faculty, staff and postdoctoral associates in light of the pandemic’s impacts on local businesses. These services, however, were not communicated until June 2 — a day after the reopening.

Now, well into June, some researchers have still refused to enter their labs.

Steach, for example, has been set back by six months in her research, but said in an email to the News that she will not be returning to her lab until her concerns are addressed.

Other researchers have made decisions similar to Steach’s. Boot — who also works in the immunobiology department and has lost nearly half a year of research — is going to wait for the first two weeks of reopening to pass in order to hear how everything goes.

Thrush and Gigante — who both work in the CBB department — have not been nearly as impacted as Steach or Boot, as they can work easily from home. Thrush said she will continue to work from home and will not be returning to the lab until the fall at the earliest. According to Gigante, his principal investigator has not even applied for approval yet, so he too is uncertain about his return.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Yale has required everyone working on campus to wear face masks, self-monitor for symptoms daily and maintain social distancing guidelines. And in an email to the News, University Provost Scott Strobel wrote that the University is making its operational decisions in “close consultation” with Yale’s Public Health Committee.

“Yale places the highest priority on the health and safety of the community and has taken strict precautions to stem the spread of COVID-19,” he wrote. “We are keenly aware of the questions and concerns raised, and we have made efforts to address these by providing detailed instructions and safety guidelines for those resuming on-campus functions.”

As of Tuesday evening, there have been 44,179 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Connecticut.

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu

Charlotte Zimmer | charlotte.zimmer@yale.edu

Correction, June 12: This article has been updated to reflect the correct time in which the second reopening phase is set to begin.

Update, June 13: This article has been updated to include the name of the organization responsible for drafting the letter to administrators.