Rethinking School Spaces and Structures to Maintain Proper Distancing Amid COVID-19

The centers for disease control and prevention (CDC) guidelines for how schools and other organizations can safely reopen make the following recommendations for maintaining social distancing and limiting the sharing of materials within schools:

  • Pursue virtual activities and events in lieu of field trips, student assemblies, special performances, school-wide parent meetings, and spirit nights if possible. Promote social distancing of at least six feet between people if events are held, and limit group size to the extent possible.
  • Limit nonessential visitors, volunteers, and activities involving external groups of people as possible.
  • Space student desks and seating at least six feet apart when feasible. Turn desks to face in the same direction, or have students sit on only one side of tables, spread at least six feet apart.
  • Close communal-use spaces such as dining halls and playgrounds if possible; otherwise, stagger their use and disinfect them in between uses.
  • Have students eat meals in classrooms. Serve individually plated meals, or encourage students to bring their own meals from home where possible.
  • Stagger arrival and drop-off times or locations by cohort, or put in place other measures to limit direct contact with parents as much as possible.
  • Keep each child’s belongings separated from others’ and in individually labeled containers, cubbies, or areas.
  • Have enough supplies to minimize the sharing of high-touch materials to the extent possible (art supplies, math manipulatives, science equipment, etc.), or limit the use of supplies and equipment to one group of children at a time and clean and disinfect these items between uses.
  • Avoid sharing electronic devices, books, games, and other learning aids. Students might need their own bin of materials that they use for learning — and these materials will need to be cleaned regularly.

Following these recommendations will force K-12 leaders to be creative in how they set up classrooms and student groupings, as space will become an issue in maintaining proper distancing. For instance, spacing students six feet apart will mean the average classroom can accommodate no more than 12 to 15 students at a time. K-12 leaders might need to rethink the design of school spaces and/or schedules to solve this challenge.

“Create strategies to de-densify existing spaces, rethink underutilized space, and incorporate structures to support hybrid setups for digital and physical use,” advises Meghan Webster and Elaine Lockwood Bean at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm.

As you rethink the design of educational spaces and structures to keep your communities safe and healthy when schools reopen, here are some possible strategies and issues to consider.

proper distancing in schools

Use a hybrid approach that combines face-to-face and online instruction

Instead of having all students return to school at once, you might consider using a hybrid approach to learning that combines face-to-face and online instruction.

For instance, you might have students attend school in person two days a week and learn online three days a week. Half the students in each class could attend on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other half could attend on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, you could have everyone working from home online while custodial staff deep clean the building.

Another approach might be to have students alternate weeks of face-to-face and online instruction. One cohort could attend school for weeks one and three of the month and learn remotely from home during weeks two and four, and the other cohort could follow the opposite schedule.

One advantage to this weekly rotation model is that it involves less mixing of students; the same group of students would be in each classroom all week, and then the room could be thoroughly cleaned over the weekend before the next group’s arrival. However, a downside is that students wouldn’t see their teachers or peers for a full week at a time.

However you decide to handle it, a hybrid approach to learning would address the population density challenge by cutting in half the number of students in the building each day, making it easier to follow distancing protocols. Because educators and students already have experience in teaching and learning remotely, moving to a hybrid learning model should not be as disruptive as it might have been before COVID-19 emerged.

If you choose to adopt a hybrid learning approach, aside from the question of how frequently students will attend school, you’ll have to figure out how to make the best use of students’ and teachers’ time both online and for in-person instruction. Here are some questions to think about:

  • What is the teacher’s biggest value as a classroom presence? How you answer this question could help you structure in-class time in a way that leverages the teacher’s value most effectively.
  • How will direct instruction occur? For instance, will you have students receive instruction from the teacher while they’re in class, and then practice or apply what they’ve learned while they’re at home? Will you employ a “flipped” approach to learning, in which students learn content from home by reading or watching videos and then apply these lessons in school under the teacher’s guidance? Will students who are working online join their in-school peers through live video conferencing as the teacher is giving direct instruction in class? There are many possible ways to approach this, and the method you choose will depend on your educational philosophy and perhaps what makes the most sense for each lesson.
  • How will you structure activities so that teachers aren’t doing twice as much work, teaching one cohort of students in class during the school day and then addressing the needs of the online cohort in the evening? How will you ensure a fair workload for everyone involved?

Take advantage of non-instructional spaces for learning

Another way to reduce the density of students in classrooms might be to make use of non-instructional spaces for learning. With a little planning and ingenuity, K-12 leaders could convert spaces such as gymnasiums, auditoriums, cafeterias, media centers, outdoor spaces, and unused areas of the school into makeshift classrooms to accommodate students who are spread at least six feet apart.

Of course, reconfiguring non-instructional spaces for learning will be much simpler if schools have flexible, agile furniture that is designed for easy manipulation, such as tables and desks on casters and other furnishings that can be moved around and set up in various arrangements.

Converting non-instructional spaces into classrooms so that students can spread out raises a number of logistical challenges. One of the most obvious is that teachers can’t be in two places at once. If a class of students is distributed across multiple spaces, how will
the teacher provide instruction to all students? How will teachers monitor students and ensure their safety?

One option might be to have students receive direct instruction in a large room where they can spread out, such as the auditorium or media center, and then move to different locations in the school to work independently. However, if you take this approach, the large instructional space would need to be cleaned and disinfected before other students could use it — and you would need a way to monitor students as they work in various locations, such as by deploying teacher’s aides for this purpose.

Another approach might be to have students seated in a second room participate in class online by using the same video conferencing platform they’ve been using for remote learning. In the interest of fairness, the two groups of students could rotate every week, so students would take part in class online one week and in person the next.

This would differ from the other hybrid learning model discussed earlier in two key ways: (1) All of the online learning would be synchronous in nature, so that everyone in the class would be experiencing the same lessons and activities at the same time, and (2) it would provide more structure and support than having students learn from home. But again, you would need to have a teacher’s aide or other adult in each room with students.

Besides the challenge of how to teach, monitor, and support groups of students in different locations with a single teacher, here are three other issues to consider when repurposing non-instructional spaces for learning.

  • Do you have wireless connectivity throughout every area of your building? If not, how will you ensure that students can get online? You could set up mobile hotspots in areas lacking WiFi coverage, for instance.
  • How will you equip these spaces for learning? Consider what teaching and learning will look like when schools reopen, and plan the needs of each space accordingly. For example, you’ll probably want to incorporate some kind of writing surface that is large enough for all students to see. A mobile whiteboard that can easily be wheeled from one location to another might be an ideal solution.
  • How will you ensure that electronic learning tools and devices have enough power? You might need to supplement the existing power supplies within non-instructional spaces with mobile power strips or outlets.

Plan carefully

Reopening schools in a way that allows for social distancing will require a great deal of planning. As you’re thinking through all of the many issues involved, make sure you get input from all stakeholder groups, including union representatives. By working together as a school community, you can come up with solutions for reimagining school spaces and structures that will work for everyone involved.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.