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Teaching Labs COVID-19 Guidance

1.  Purpose:

The purpose of this document is to create guidance that builds upon existing Cornell protocols for laboratory spaces, and which addresses the specific issues related to COVID 19 which might exist in a teaching lab setting.

2.  COVID-19 Prevention and Mitigation:

COVID-19 transmission risk increases with:

  • Inability to maintain social distancing. The current recommendation is no less than 6 feet.

  • Length of time near other people who may be COVID positive

  • Limits related to airflow, filtering, and circulation in a closed space

  • High-touch surfaces that are not frequently disinfected

  • Higher-volume and velocity airflow, such as speaking loudly, yelling

Teaching labs will adhere to the University guidelines on physical distancing (maintenance of 6-feet at all times while indoors) and face coverings (face coverings required indoors, at all times, unless in designated and marked locations). 

3.  Guidance:

Teaching labs should consider these questions as they make their final class and space decisions:

  • Is this activity essential to an academic outcome or experience that can’t be replaced in a later semester?
  • Are virtual alternatives not acceptable? Why not?
  • Do the benefits of in-person contact really outweigh the risks of possible COVID transmission?
  • Are there ways to assure equity in access for students who are required to be in quarantine or isolation? 

If the answers to these questions are yes, teaching labs may re-open. Teaching labs must write up a detailed Teaching Lab Plan that describes the environmental changes that will support physical distancing, the methods used to support community protective equipment, PPE use, and the cleaning/disinfecting protocols for their specific lab course. More restrictive measures can be adopted if the specific conditions require.  Plans should be reviewed by the College Unit and input of the College Safety Representative should be considered.

4.  Lab Capacity

Teaching laboratories should maintain social distancing guidance - all persons 6 feet or further from one another when students, TAs, faculty, and other persons are in the lab.  Establish lab capacity in partnership with building managers and working with University guidance.

5.  Dedicated (not shared) Workspace, Equipment, Tools & Supplies

Every effort should be made to assign dedicated hoods, benches, tools, equipment, and supplies to individual students to minimize interpersonal interactions and reduce foot traffic through the laboratory. Where this is not possible, the Teaching Lab Plan must describe how density will be limited, how time closer than 6-feet will be limited, how risks associated with shared equipment and interpersonal interactions will be mitigated and other possible COVID-19 transmission will be limited.   Examples of how to control density and ensure spacing are available in the Health and Safety Guidance for Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

6.  Shared Equipment, Tools, and Facilities

Multiple students working on the same procedures with the same equipment means that teaching laboratories typically require a greater level of sharing of equipment and resources than research laboratories. The Teaching Lab Plan must describe how:

  • Sharing of equipment and tools will be limited. In cases where this is not feasible, labs should employ keyboard and mouse covers, implement glove only policy, or have each user clean and disinfect high touch surfaces before and after each use. Agents used for disinfection should be selected from the EPA N list of agents effective against SARS-CoV2 and be compatible with equipment.
  • Shared equipment will be identified, and the documented processes for decontamination including the type of disinfectant used, the frequency of disinfection, and responsible parties. At a minimum, shared equipment and tools be disinfected before and after each use. All equipment should be disinfected before and after each use as this assures cleaning at every use. This consideration applies to equipment (glove boxes, biological safety cabinets) as well as tools (hand tools and bench tools) and lab facilities such as sinks and gas/vacuum valves.
  • How signage will be employed at shared equipment locations that remind users of traffic flow, operational procedures, and decontamination practices (including the type of disinfectant, application method, frequency, and responsible parties) for that piece of equipment.

7.  Shared Personal Protective Equipment (PPE):

Sharing of PPE is discouraged. Students in teaching labs are often provided lab coats and other PPE upon arrival. The Teaching Lab Plan must describe how:

  • PPE (lab coats, face mask, gloves, goggles, and/or face shields) will be assigned and disinfected.  For items that may be shared, the plan must include how the items will be collected and disinfected to ensure that there is no sharing of contaminated items. Consider the use of disposable PPE, where possible.
  • Each student must have their own pair of goggles, safety glasses, or face shield.
  • Where shared gloves are necessary (ex. autoclave/cryogen gloves), disposable gloves will be worn beneath the re-usable ones.

8.  Social Interactions, Collaborations, and Group Sessions:

Pre-COVID, teaching lab operations may have included group learning activities as well as spaces where students can collaborate and socialize. This must be reconsidered.

  • Physical group collaboration areas should be eliminated where possible leveraging alternate digital platforms available to facilitate academic interaction and collaboration.
  • Congregation should be eliminated in common areas outside of the lab space.
  • In-person group huddles and activities, including training and orientations, should not be done. They can be conducted on-line/Zoom.

9.  Entrance and Exit Procedures:

Situations where students are assembled in a group awaiting access to the laboratory should be eliminated:

  • Consider staggered arrival times,
  • Assign and post signage identifying entrance points and exit points to prevent path crossing.
  • Employ 6-foot floor markings where needed
  • Provide for immediate entrance to the lab space with no waiting.
    • Encourage students to minimize the personal items they bring to the lab.
    • Large (5-gallon for example) zip-top bags can be used to store personal items while in the lab and to store lab coats between lab sessions.
    • Consider staggered exit times and locations to prevent a bottleneck on the way out of the lab space.
    • Guidance for routine exiting and re-entering the lab, for example for restroom visits or other reasons, should be clearly defined to students.

10.  Instructional Labs where 6’ distancing is not feasible

In certain instruction spaces such as teaching laboratories and in-person classroom settings, it may not be possible to maintain physical distance during certain aspects of the hands-on learning experience. 

  • Social Distancing should be maintained whenever possible.  Instructors should explore technology that may eliminate the need for close contact or significantly reduce contact time.  Examples, videotaping procedures, providing physical barriers, assigned seating, reduced classroom capacity, etc.
  • Both instructor and student must wear a medical mask.  Instructors can access masks for their students through the Cornell central supply.  Re-useable cloth masks should not be used. 
  • In addition to medical masks, all participants must wear goggles, safety glasses, or face shields.
  • N95 masks are not recommended.  In community settings, standard procedural masks are shown to be as effective as N95 respirators in preventing respiratory disease spread. N95 respirators are reserved for health care workers when they are in a high-risk setting and are not needed for routine contact, including when social distancing is not possible.
  • Masks with exhalation valves are prohibited for use on campus except for very specific instances driven, such as within a biosafety level 3 laboratory where a researcher may be using an elastomeric respirator as part of PPE.

11.    Teaching Assistants (TA):

The TA adds an additional layer of personal interaction to laboratory space and provides a level of direct supervision to help in the implementation of safety and distancing protocols. TAs must be given clear instruction/training on new roles and expectations placed upon them:

  • A TA should be present any time students are in a teaching lab, however, steps can be taken to reduce/eliminate close interaction:
  • Q/A sessions before and after the lab via email or Zoom when possible,
  • Strict adherence to 6-foot separation rule where feasible; where 6-foot separation is not feasible (e.g., demonstrating a dissection technique) the additional PPE described in Item 10 must be used.,
  • Repeated questions should be grouped and answers should be given to the class as a whole when possible, and
  • Digital, recorded instruction wherever possible.
  • TAs should be expected to remind students about COVID-related requirements, including the use of masks and distancing; correcting behaviors on the spot when necessary.
  • TA and student roles in decontamination should be clearly defined.

12.    Resources