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Following USDA's playbook: Transitioning from virtual operations

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Rick Cooksey, acting Forest Service National Pandemic Coordinator

Just like the rest of the country, the Forest Service is preparing a phased reopening of facilities that will transition our operations away from the virtual environment we’ve been in for the past two months. Last month, the White House issued its guidelines for safely reopening the nation through a phased approach. This week, with much thought about the safety and well-being of our employees, the public we serve and the communities in which live, USDA has issued a playbook to serve as a framework for agencies to transition operations at our offices and facilities. This playbook relies on a data-driven approach and is geared to support the consideration of local conditions and protecting employees.

Yesterday, the department shared a summary of the playbook with all agency employees. I encourage everyone to read this document to gain some great perspective on the big expectations for us moving forward.

As a next step for the agency, our leadership is wrapping up a plan to operationalize the department playbook at our level. The guidance and protocols—soon to be released—are intended to assist line officers as they make decisions on transitioning employees to the office and facilities. Upcoming guidance will provide tools and resources to help gradually bring people to the office who are specific to the decentralized and diverse needs of our agency and employees.

The agency transition plan aligns with the guidelines from both the White House and the USDA and allows us to take a science-based, data-driven and phased approach to bring staff back and reopen public sites that were closed due to the pandemic. It supports local decision-making in response to local conditions because a one-size-fits all approach wouldn’t be practical.

I know that many of you are anxious and worry about your safety and the safety of your families and loved ones. Our plan is designed to ensure we are true to our core values of service to the community and safety for our employees and those we serve. We intend to thoughtfully make decisions that consider local health, employee health, facility readiness and other factors important to employee work–life balance. Now, more than ever, is a time to live our agency values, and we are committed to doing that while delivering our mission.

Our transition plan has a set of tools to help line officers determine the readiness of a site to expand operations, monitor conditions and put practices in place to mitigate risk to our employees, visitors and the public. Decisions to open, close or provide modified facility operations and/or services will be made by regional foresters, station directors or appropriate National Leadership Council members and supported by risk assessments aligned with national USDA guidance.

Just as captured in the department playbook summary sent out yesterday, our transition will be gradually phased in. We know that many offices never closed. In phase one, for example, telework will be encouraged, staff reentry may come in stages, and social-distancing measures and personal protective equipment will be used as people return to offices and facilities. Supervisors will be working with employees to develop individualized work schedules that carefully consider employee health concerns, available child or dependent care, and the availability of public transportation throughout all three phases of transition. These schedules can include continued telework, modified work schedules or a full return to a facility.

There is more hard work ahead as we begin to reopen our facilities, and it is quite clear that it will be some time before all of our employees are reporting to facilities as they did prior to the beginning of this pandemic. We do not expect all employees to return to the office at the same time. Returns will take place over phases as conditions allow, while incorporating best practices we are learning now on successfully continuing service to the American public in a virtual environment.

As we adapt to our situation and work requirements, I want to share that I deeply appreciate the resiliency, ingenuity and patience of our employees. We are doing a great job during this uncertain time. We have already accomplished amazing things together during this national crisis. I know we will continue to do so as we move forward.