Phased reopening, COVID-19 testing, and restarting research

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Dear IU colleague,

I write to you today with a very important message about:

  • The report of the expert Restart Committee.
  • A new agreement with IU Health for comprehensive COVID-19 screening, testing and management for the entire IU community.
  • Bringing IU research back into full operation.
  • Our planning for the fall semester.

The IU Restart Committee report

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we made the unprecedented decision in March to suspend most in-person operations at IU, including research and instruction. Universities are critical institutions for our communities, states and nation, so it has been essential since the beginning to have a process in place to evaluate how we might safely approach the critical issues involved in reopening for in-person instruction and research. To do this, we marshaled the extensive expertise in medicine and public health throughout the university and through our close partnership with IU Health. I commissioned an Indiana University expert Restart Committee -- chaired by Executive Vice President and Dean of the IU School of Medicine Jay Hess and including the deans of the IU schools of public health and other public health and medical experts from IU, IU Health and Eli Lilly -- to advise the university on these important questions.

After studying this question intensively, the committee has completed its excellent and authoritative report. This report contains a number of important recommendations about the medical and public health measures that would permit us to enter into a period of phased reopening of our research and teaching operations. We are all enormously grateful to the members of the committee for their outstanding efforts, which have been driven by science and the overwhelming importance of the safety and well-being of the entire university community. I have asked that the committee continue to meet regularly and consider matters related to the implementation of its recommendations in light of the rapidly evolving science surrounding the virus.

In light of the importance of the committee's work to forthcoming decisions about the next academic year, I am sharing the Restart Report with all of you.

Comprehensive COVID-19 screening, testing and management to support a return to campus activities

It is universally recognized among public health and health care experts that the ability to test for the COVID-19 virus is the necessary foundation of a responsible reopening process. The state of Indiana's reopening strategy is predicated on the ability of the state to test all Hoosiers who are symptomatic. This is also recognized in a critical recommendation from the Restart Committee to base any return to campus by IU faculty, staff and students on a strong foundation of screening and testing for COVID-19.

Hence, I am extremely pleased to announce that Indiana University has entered into a comprehensive agreement with its partner IU Health, Indiana's largest health care provider and one of the nation's largest, to screen and test any member of the IU community of nearly 140,000 students, staff and faculty who is symptomatic for COVID-19.

Beginning June 1, any member of the IU community who believes they have symptoms of COVID-19 can access a comprehensive process through One.IU that will screen, review and, whenever medically appropriate, test students, staff and faculty for the virus. The screening elements of this service will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to all students, staff and faculty even if not in Indiana.

This service begins with a web-based IU Health COVID-19 Symptom Checker, a virtual assistant that screens and reviews symptoms using artificial intelligence to determine next steps. If the virtual assistant determines that further screening is required, individuals will be referred to the IU Health Virtual Screening Clinic, which is also accessible through the web 24/7. There they will have a consultation with a medical professional who will review their symptoms. Should it be determined that the person needs a COVID-19 virus test, they will be referred for the collection of samples for testing to one of 15 different IU or IU Health locations across the state of Indiana in the following cities:

  • Bloomington
  • Indianapolis
  • Columbus
  • Evansville
  • Fort Wayne
  • Gary
  • Kokomo
  • Lafayette
  • Muncie
  • New Albany
  • Richmond
  • South Bend
  • Terre Haute

These locations will ensure that all members of the IU community on IU campuses and facilities anywhere in the state have close and immediate access to a site for sample collection. They will all be operational on or just after June 1.

Samples for testing will be transported to the IU Health Pathology Laboratories in Indianapolis. These CLIA-certified laboratories have the capacity of carrying out over 6,000 COVID-19 tests per day, the largest such testing capacity in the state, and these results are usually available in 24 to 36 hours. IU Health's FDA-authorized, clinical-grade COVID-19 testing has been extensively used by IU Health's statewide hospital system since the beginning of the pandemic in February. This is the gold standard for testing in Indiana.

Should a person receive a positive COVID-19 test, they will be directed to self-isolate for an appropriate period. Contact tracing will be required using the procedures established by the Indiana State Department of Health. During the contact-tracing process, persons potentially exposed will be provided additional resources and information. There are additional IU Health services available through One.IU for the management of COVID-19.

As I said, access to these services will be available through One.IU beginning June 1. In the meantime, further information about all the services that IU Health will be providing to IU for COVID-19 screening, testing and management can be found at As new types of faster and more specific screening and testing for and associated with COVID-19 become available, these capabilities will also become rapidly available to IU through IU Health.

Resuming research activities

With this comprehensive testing and contact-tracing regimen in place, we are now able to begin to implement the Restart Committee's recommendation that the phased resumption of research activities can begin around June 1, with appropriate and extensive risk mitigation described in the report, so that researchers, including graduate students, can begin returning to their laboratories.

COVID-19 has posed exceptional challenges to research at Indiana University and around the world. The pandemic has slowed or stopped many major research activities on campus, though due to a wide range of protective measures taken internally, and the dedication and skill of IU researchers, IU has been able to continue some "essential research" on campus and considerable other research remotely. The pandemic has also slowed or stopped many activities critical to our mission of educating clinical and graduate students.

In light of this recommendation, I now ask the Laboratory Research Restart Committee that I established in April, which is co-chaired by Vice President for Research Fred Cate and Vice President and Dean of the Graduate School James Wimbush, to carefully review the Restart Committee's report. They should rapidly finalize a detailed plan, on which they have already been working, for safely resuming full research activity -- including the return of graduate students associated with this research -- around June 1, with the goal of restarting all on-campus research that can be resumed under the present circumstances by July 1.

The Laboratory Research Restart Committee's full plan will be distributed shortly. You will be able to find it, together with the reports of campus research committees and other important information, online at This committee will also continue to meet regularly to assess its recommendations in light of new information about COVID-19, new regulatory requirements and changes in the capacity of our communities to respond.

Fall semester instruction

Of course, the most difficult question we must consider is the resumption of on-campus instruction. A central recommendation in the Restart Committee's report is that the fall semester can involve on-campus in-person instruction "in some proportion," with extensive risk mitigation, testing and tracking procedures that the report describes in considerable detail. A key prerequisite for this is the comprehensive testing capacity that we now have in place that is a prerequisite to a responsible decision about bringing students, faculty and staff back to campus.

I have transmitted the Restart Report to all campuses and have asked that they report back no later than May 26 as to how they will implement this central recommendation of the report, which supports a blended or hybrid model of instruction, and confirm that they can implement such an instructional model with appropriate risk mitigation as outlined in the committee's report.

Much of this work is already well advanced through dozens of campus committees that have engaged hundreds of faculty and staff members over recent months. In the coming weeks, the campuses will all be regularly communicating further details of their plans, which will all adhere closely to the committee's report.

However, as we move forward into the summer and the fall semester, we must be constantly aware that the sheer unpredictability of the pandemic and the response to it from numerous quarters means that we may need, at any moment, to pause our plans or even reverse them. All our planning needs to incorporate these possibilities.

A final word

On behalf of Indiana University, I want to once again express my most grateful thanks to Executive Vice President Jay Hess and the members of the expert Restart Committee. I also want to thank the senior leadership of the university and the hundreds of other members of the IU community who are members of dozens of other committees across the university who have been working unceasingly on these difficult and extremely complex matters for months. I am also deeply grateful to our faculty and staff for their hard work, flexibility and positive spirit as they have worked to ensure that students' academic progress continues, to safeguard our campuses and, in some cases, to combat COVID-19 itself. And I commend our students for their patience and resilience as they worked under unprecedented circumstances to complete the spring semester -- and in the cases of the more than 21,000 members of the Bicentennial Class of 2020, to complete their degrees.

I encourage you once again to continue to take every precaution to practice physical distancing at all times. Stay home unless it is essential to be out. Do not put others at risk. And take care of your own health and the health of those around you -- both mental and physical.

We will almost certainly face more challenges and trials in the weeks and months ahead. But I am confident we will meet them -- with the same toughness, fierce resolve, humanity and empathy that carried us through a difficult spring semester.

Collectively, we will not only surmount this crisis, but we will come out of it an even better IU.

Michael A. McRobbie

Indiana University