An experiment in the socially-distanced classroom

I belong to a group of faculty and staff who’ve historically met over lunch to discuss teaching and technology. Last week, after three months of meeting on Zoom, we decided to meet in person in a classroom on campus to see what it’s like.

Four of us met in a third-floor classroom measuring 28’x24′ with a nominal capacity of 28 students. We all wore masks, and at my husband’s suggestion I brought the Stick of Social Distancing (marked at 6′ and 2m).

First I reflect on “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” which I’ve interpreted as what went well (or better than expected), what practical or pedagogical problems arose, and where we had difficulty following safety guidelines. Then I share some recommendations based on these observations. Finally, I conclude with a photo essay documenting our experiment.

The Good

  • We were able to arrange the desks to implement the official adjusted room capacity of 15 students plus the instructor. I assumed that would mean staggered rows of desks facing forward, but it also worked to put 12 seats around the edge of the room and 4 in the middle, which were far enough apart to face either in (for a fishbowl discussion) or out (for small group discussions).
  • We had no problems hearing each each other – although we never did try to have two pairwise conversations in parallel.
  • We felt more comfortable wearing masks after 75 minutes than we thought we would.
  • It was nice to spend some time in the physical presence of a few of my closest colleagues. I didn’t feel the anxiety during this experiment that I thought I might.

The Bad

  • Arriving at the classroom was uncomfortable. After walking up two flights of stairs, our masks were quite moist and sticky.
  • While there is space for 15 students plus the instructor, there is no space for the instructor to move in the discussion configuration. Perhaps the instructor would be able to use the chalkboard if the desks were in rows facing forward. We didn’t test that.
  • With 4 groups of 4 students, there is nowhere in the classroom for the instructor to be at all.
  • Three desks were in pretty uncomfortable positions – one in the corner right by the door, and two with the instructor’s podium between them so they could not see each other. (It would be very tempting to scoot forward to gain a sightline and end up too close together.)
  • We found that it took a conscious effort to speak at a normal volume rather than projecting. We worried about losing our voices during a full day of classes and other meetings with students. ETA: I normally teach with a cup of water in my hand. And as Emma reminded me, drinking while wearing a mask requires taking the mask off, so no drinking while teaching.
  • At the end of our meeting, one colleague said I had talked over her several times. While I pointed out I have always had a bad habit of interrupting when excited, she attributed it to not being able to see each other’s faces under the masks.

The Ugly

  • While we’ve typically had 8-9 folks at Zoom meetings, only 4 made it to this meeting on campus. People had different reasons for not coming. It was just as well for this meeting – Walla Walla County is still in Phase 2, which allows meetings of up to 5 people. But it makes me wonder even more about whether it’s going to be realistic to expect most students to come to an in-person class, especially if they have the option to participate online or substitute other activities.
  • In particular, one colleague who did not join us reported by email that she may have been exposed to COVID-19 and is self-quarantining.
  • Navigating the hallways and stairs too and from the classroom was a bit nerve-wracking, even with very few people in the building.
  • Without the Stick of Social Distancing, we might have spaced some of the desks too closely. As it is, I’m concerned that we measured on-center and not edge-to-edge.
  • Once our conversation got animated, the four of us easily took up the entire room. We definitely got too close to each other after some of us got out of our seats to use the chalkboard.
  • One of us had a poorly fitting mask that slipped down her nose over the course of our meeting. This might be the thing that made me the most nervous.
  • After getting home, I cleaned my book and phone, took a shower, and started a load of laundry. That might have been unnecessary, but I felt a lot better after the shower.

Recommendations

  • To meet in person, we need one-way signs for halls and stairways, floor marks for safe configurations of classrooms with moveable furniture (maybe different-colored tape for different configurations), and hand sanitizer at the door of every classroom.
  • To meet in person, we need to trust each others’ masks. Students, faculty, and staff should all be provided with several masks (to allow washing) of a design known to be effective.
  • Everyone, but especially instructors, may need to arrive to class earlier than usual to have extra time to clean their hands, get in place, and cool down. ETA: We also need scheduled breaks to drink water in a place/situation where we can take our masks off. Those who normally teach with a mug of coffee may need to schedule time for advance caffeination.
  • Instructors need to think carefully about how our usual active learning techniques will adapt to social distancing, in the particular classrooms we are teaching in. In particular, seating the students may not be enough. If the instructor or the students need space to move around, you need a much bigger classroom or many fewer students.
  • Collaborative work on paper is not an option when you are 6 feet apart. Students need to use chalkboards, whiteboards, or digital tools such as Google Docs.
  • In collaborative chalkboard work, each person should keep their own chalk during the session. We need to figure out how to stay distanced while moving – possibly by marking boxes on the floor and instituting rules for taking turns writing on the board.
  • Similarly, instructors should make explicit rules for requesting, taking, and ceding the floor, e.g., by raising and lowering hands. (A talking stick is not an option, for reasons that should be obvious.)
  • Instructors need to have plans for accommodating unplanned absences due to self-quarantine. While we always have unplanned absences due to illness and personal emergencies, there are going to be a lot more than usual due to requirements to get tested and/or self-quarantine for suspected exposure as well as symptoms. Moreover, vulnerable students who have chosen to return to campus may be much more cautious about attending class while they are feeling ill or during an outbreak. (It goes without saying that we also need plans to move our classes entirely online, even if they start in person.)
  • Like health care workers, instructors may want to institute a sanitary protocol for returning home after a day with students, especially if they have vulnerable family members.

Photo essay

Photo of Janet wearing a sunhat and holding a tick marked "6ft" and "2m"

Leaving home with my sunhat and the Stick of Social Distancing.

Five-foot tall woman standing in a classroom holding up a 2-meter tall stick

Arriving in the classroom with the Stick of Social Distancing. (Photo Credit: Albert Schueller)

A woman in a sun hat crouching down and holding a long stick on the floor between two desks

Using the Stick of Social Distancing to check the spacing of desks. (Photo Credit: Albert Schueller.)

A woman sitting at a desk in the corner while another stands against the wall. Desks are spaced 6 feet apart along the walls. Other desks are scattered in the foreground.

After arranging the desks around the edges of the classroom and pushing extras to the middle. Later this summer, Physical Plant will remove desks exceeding the adjusted room capacities. (Photo Credit: Albert Schueller)

One woman writes at the chalkboard while another gestures and a man watches

The four of us easily took up the whole room.

Man reaching to write on the chalkboard, woman standing nearby

Getting too close at the chalkboard.

The artist stands by the chalkboard while two others gesture and talk to each other

An animated conversation, with visual aids.

38 thoughts on “An experiment in the socially-distanced classroom

  1. Amy Csizmar Dalal

    Thanks for posting this experiment! I participated in an outdoor, socially-distanced discussion with about 16 faculty earlier this week. Everyone was wearing masks. And while we made it work, it was hard. Very hard. You *really* need to project to be heard across the group while wearing a mask. Most people ended up taking off their masks to speak —which, since we were outside, wasn’t as fraught as it would be if we were indoors and someone took off a mask. I left the experience thinking “there’s no way this is going to work well in the classroom.”

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      It’s good to hear others are doing similar experiments. Some of my colleagues have expressed enthusiasm about teaching outdoors, but my past experiences agree that ambient noise is a big problem. (And maybe the lack of walls to reflect/amplify voices? I’m no expert on acoustics.)

      Reply
      1. Michael McVey

        As a teacher in Michigan, after that last sweet mid- to late-October day, teaching outdoors is . . . somewhat challenging.

        Reply
  2. Erik Simpson

    Thank you for doing and sharing this work, Janet. The only approach I can imagine working is anchoring the class in online sessions for the whole group and then using the classroom space for small-group or one-on-one sessions that supplement those sessions. In your experiment, did it seem that conversation among three to five people could function reasonably well in the room?

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      Yes, apart from the talking-over my colleague noted, the conversation among the four of us was pretty productive. The experiment made me feel somewhat better about my tentative plans to meet groups of four students to do chalkboard work, assuming campus opens this fall. The concerns I had about safety at the chalkboard would go away if everyone stayed seated.

      Reply
  3. Tiffany Barnes

    I don’t see how the learning benefits of meeting in person outweigh the risks. I believe professors and students should demand online only learning until there is a cure or vaccine. IMHO online collaboration is preferable for many reasons, including safety but also it puts everyone on the same footing. Let’s spend the summer getting ready for high quality online learning that meets ADA requirements.

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      Tiffany, thanks for raising this important point. I am 98% in agreement with you. Unfortunately, my administration is holding firm to an unreasonable and immoral expectation that all faculty will teach in person, except those who must be offered accommodations under the ADA. As a tenured faculty member, I could choose not to teach in the classroom myself and damn the administration’s expectations, but my untenured colleagues may see that as a viable option. I am working with my local AAUP chapter to keep faculty safe and induce a change in expectations.

      In the meantime, we have been permitted a great deal of flexibility in what counts as in-person instruction. For myself and others, I’m trying to figure out what forms of in-person instruction will be relatively safe and will most readily translate to online instruction with minimal disruption. In the unlikely event the semester starts in person, it seems even more unlikely it will finish that way.

      Reply
      1. Nann

        When an administration is planning to impose an “unreasonable and immoral” MO, then—do we not have the obligation to push back?

        What about colleagues whose partners are over 60? Colleagues whose partners have worrying—but not formally disabling—underlying conditions that magnify the risks associated with contracting Covid-19? Colleagues who have family members whom they will not be able to see at all because THEY are being compelled to—unreasonably and unnecessarily—to shoulder the increased risk of interacting in person with students?

        The fact that one is not oneself a member of these unhappy groups is not the only thing that should be of concern. Don’t we have some sort of obligation to protect colleagues from having to accede to what are so clearly unnecessary and unreasonable demands?

        Reply
        1. Janet Davis Post author

          100%. Like I said, I’m starting to work with my AAUP chapter. I’m not ready to talk about it more in public.

          How are you pushing back?

          Reply
    2. Carol Griffith

      I might have to disagree with “puts everyone on the same footing.” After moving online mid March, I discovered just how problematic my students access to reliable internet is, as well as their having a place in their living quarters to be able to use the computer without distractions. My own internet service is pretty awful and the amount of visual and video that art teaching entails left my access throttled within the first 10 days of my cellular plan. Like many of my students, cable is unavailable and the only other access is to buy a dish and the plan that comes with it. Zoom, etc. ] lags and drops people out in weak areas. A broken phone or the inability to pay for a larger data plan could spell failing a semester of college for some of them. Their finances will be impacted too, as jobs may be hard to come by, especially in rural America. Certainly the online option may be the only one we have for fall and we will probably all do our best to rise to the occasion. But some will be left behind.

      Reply
      1. Janet Davis Post author

        Also a good point. I’m glad my institution has allowed some international students, and others in circumstances like you describe, to remain on campus over the spring and summer.

        I expect many others to return in August, whether we hold classes in person or not. I’m conflicted about this. I know students need adequate conditions for their learning (and some have already paid deposits on off-campus housing), but I also fear that their return could cause outbreaks in our community, as well as on campus.

        Reply
    3. Jeanine Zinner

      As an instructor who has taught on-campus and online classes (and blended learning as well), I can absolutely say that some students simply do not learn well without the face-to-face interaction. We underestimate body language and tonal inflection in the learning process. When obtaining my doctorate, the classes where I had to do all online coursework, my work and attention suffered. I imagine it’s the same for many other students with similar learning styles. I have asthma, so I am not thrilled about teaching under adverse conditions, but I can see that it is also valuable to students who need that type of instruction.

      Reply
    4. H Boorman

      I think we can prepare long term for online for a very long time but what about the little ones who will miss all of the opportunities to interact with peers. Those who may never be identified with learning challenges or those who may never return to school or graduate because this is not how they learn. Then there is the vaccine . . . is is going to be required? Will everyone be on board to get this? I am pro vaccines but I don’t know if I would be willing to jump on this it is truly in the early stages of production. Then there are those people who will never get it. And do we know if one has been exposed to the virus or has had it can they get it again, that is still a big question that personally I am not sure anyone can confirm.

      Reply
  4. Pamela Herron

    Chalk. If people use the board, they must not be handling the same markers or chalk. Add to the supply list that everyone must bring their own. This is just crazy that schools are considering opening this fall.

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      There was a conversation about this on Facebook. Since there’s not much evidence for contact transmission of COVID-19, I’d personally be okay with students choosing a chalk or marker at the start of the meeting, and keeping it until the end of the meeting so we’re not passing it hand-to-hand. As long as they wash their hands first and keep their masks on.

      That said, I think chalk is the least of our worries. I agree that many plans to reopen campuses are ill-considered. (“Crazy” is ableist language and I’d prefer to avoid it. See, for example, this NPR interview.)

      Reply
  5. Mari

    1) One-way hallways in most buildings will be a violation of the ADA, since those who cannot use the stairs will be unable to get anywhere.

    2) The solution to unreliable Internet is not to force more people to come into an environment in which they are risking their lives, it is to create options for more reliable Internet. Colleges should be working with ISPs and cellular providers to get hotspots and other options to students. And where reasonable and possible, colleges should be creating properly-ventilated cubicle spaces for students who are unable to get quiet space with appropriate Internet at home. In fact, this may be the best use of classrooms–allow no more than 4 students in a classroom using WiFi to do work and take classes (assuming, of course, that the windows open–remember, if your classroom does not have operable windows, you cannot reasonably socially distance no matter how few people are in the room because you are getting the virus particles from everyone in the building spewed back in your face…).

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      1) I don’t think it would be a problem in this particular building since the elevator is adjacent to the main foyer, but more generally, you have a point. I grant this is beyond my area of expertise, and I won’t make this recommendation elsewhere.

      2) I don’t think we disagree about the unwisdom of forcing people into the classroom. Allocating classrooms for individual students to use is a great idea. (I don’t think you necessarily need open windows to limit air recirculation within a building, but again, not my area of expertise.)

      Reply
    2. Amy Csizmar Dalal

      Mari — for what it’s worth, our IT people did work really hard spring term to figure out connectivity needs and help students with connectivity problems, by shipping out hotspots, working with local ISPs, etc. And it helped, but students still had a widely variable experience connecting — and some students who thought they’d be fine connectivity wise, discovered that in practice that was not the case. Ironically, the biggest group that had issues were students living off-campus in town — I’d heard stories (unconfirmed) that students were sneaking onto campus to get reliable wi-fi. It’s a hard problem!

      Reply
    3. Rebecca

      Beyond reliable internet, for smaller children there are also differences in the ability of their parents to help and support them. Parents who work, who don’t speak English as their first language, who aren’t there for their kids, etc. It can all make a difference in how equal that learning experience is.

      Reply
  6. John

    Thank you for posting about this experiment. I would like to add a point that you did not address in your post. If one of your students tests positive for the virus, then you (and the other students) who spent more than fifteen minutes in an enclosed room with that student during their infectious period, masked or not, would meet contact tracing guidelines for “potential contacts”. All of you would be required to self-quarantine for fourteen days. This means that you would have to be replaced as the instructor, and all of the other students would be unable to attend any of their other classes. This scenario expands as well to include the other classes that the infected student attended during their infectious period, contact with their dorm- / house-mates, and the instructor’s own potential exposure of their colleagues at informal or formal meetings following contact with the infected student.

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      I have been imagining I would move my classes online if my students and I needed to quarantine – though if I were to become ill it would be a different matter.

      I have argued elsewhere that faculty should not meet in person because we can’t afford to all get sick at the same time. I don’t plan to repeat this particular experiment.

      I did allude to the problem of students being exposed in other classes/situations, and then needing to stay home to self-quarantine.

      Reply
  7. Amy Csizmar Dalal

    We just received some additional guidance about fall term — no decisions have been finalized yet, but it looks like we’ll be bringing some (high) percentage of students back to campus. We already benefit from our calendar (we’re on terms, fall term always starts mid-September and ends before Thanksgiving), so no adjustments there, it appears. But, most importantly, it looks like we will have flexibility in how we offer courses. So if a faculty member/department wants to teach mostly or fully online, we’ll likely be able to. This is useful in departments who have large enrollments, because otherwise we’d have to restrict enrollment to fit in to socially-distanced classrooms.

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      Thanks for the update – that’s great news! We also have a good deal of flexibility in what we do in person and what counts as “contact hours.” But the only reasons currently permitted for taking a class entirely online are ADA accommodations and lack of classroom space.

      Reply
  8. Kathi Reed

    I appreciate how everyone has volunteered ideas and experiences to help us all with the difficult position of returning to in-person classes.

    I personally am concerned about being in the over-60 crowd as I do have some health concerns; however, being sent home to quarantine for 14 days every time a student or colleague is suspected of having the virus is ludicrous. Why should I burn through sick days when I’m not the one who is ill? I’ve heard no discussion of this.

    Also, I didn’t notice any experience/guidance from your experiment when it comes to using the restroom. In a high school of well over 1000 individuals and four sets of restrooms – how will that even work? How can two people use a restroom and maintain six-foot social distancing? I haven’t heard ANYONE address this issue in any of the reading I’ve done.

    Again, thank you all so much for such insightful comments.

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      I’ve been assuming I’ll teach online if I need to self-quarantine, but I can see how that might not work for high school teachers.

      I’ll admit, Kathi, that I did not use the restroom during my fairly brief visit to campus. But I’ve wondered about this too. I agree that distancing in the restroom will not be possible. I imagine the answer will be to wear your mask, wash your hands, and avoid lingering.

      Reply
      1. Matthew Watrous

        This article and the accompanying comments have been illuminating, to say the least. As a high school teacher in very rural central Washington, my concerns have been covered during most of the commentaries included here. Many of the students in my school district were able to check out laptops or iPads to take home, but internet access in Mattawa during the shutdown was abysmal, even on the best of days, making connectivity between staff and students problematic at best. Your demonstration gives me some hope for in-person instruction once/when we return to the classroom setting. Thank you for the information and the insights.

        Reply
    2. Ruth Fairbanks

      If a contact tracer from the state or county health dept identifies you as having been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID 19 (this means 6 feet or less for 15 minutes or more–so it might not mean everyone in a classroom–see below), then you are required by law to quarantine until the health dept releases you from quarantine (this will generally be for 14 days from exposure, but the guidelines change if you develop symptoms yourself). There are protections for employees who are required to quarantine. These are in state and federal labor laws. And, health depts. can provide letters for employers if you need them. In the case of faculty, I assume we would be expected to continue to teach on-line.

      My institution has said that if we make voluntary travel to a place with an outbreak (which is pretty much the whole US) then we need to observe a voluntary quarantine and use sick days or vacation for that (although I assume they expect faculty to continue to teach via distance). But a mandatory quarantine issued by public health authorities should not be charged to your sick leave or vacation. It’s like jury duty, sort of. It’s a civic responsibility and it can carry the force of law. Ask Typhoid Mary.

      Now the thing about 6 feet or less. This doesn’t account for airflow patterns in what are often older academic buildings with funky ventilation and maybe unfunctioning windows or cold or stormy outside that prevents use of windows. It makes sense to me that people spending 75 minutes in a classroom with closed windows are all exposed whether they are six feet apart or 12 feet apart or 24 feet apart. But, them’s the current guidelines–6 feet or less for 15 minutes or more.

      One thing that this does mean, however, is that I think if masked people are passing in a hallway that is of less concern than maybe we’re worried about. No hanging out chatting in the hallways in the passing period. But, passing, if everyone is masked, does not worry me.

      One other thing is that I understand the earlier comment that some people just don’t learn as well on-line and need things like body language to stay engaged. I agree. But what we’re able to offer in class is not what we had before and I think it’s less certain that one day a week socially distanced masked classes with sever constraints on group work and where tone and facial expression are both obscured by masks and distance will be better for those students than zoom or whatever. I also get the tech limitations of students in their homes and home communities. But, again, it’s not an on-line or like it was before. It’s an on line or a whole kettle of new fish no one has yet tasted with likely their expected and unexpected sets of complications. I plan to make a little smily face on a stick to bring with me–or maybe a screen print of myself smiling on a t-shirt.

      Reply
  9. Sarah Sweetman

    What a generously sized room and compact desks! Both are appreciably different from the norm at the K-12 schools where I’ve worked. I have a larger room than average and it is several square feet smaller. Our desks are also much bulkier, this taking up more space.

    From my time as a faculty member at a nearby university, I could see more potential for this to work there. I cannot see a way for it to work in a K-12 setting unless we are somehow reinventing our culture over the summer.

    Reply
  10. Amanda

    Hi. I teach in an international school in Germany and we were able to bring our students back in steps for the last five weeks of our year. We started with 11th and 12th, then 9th and 10th and 5th, then 4th, then everyone else. The high school was on a rotational schedule of students coming in certain days and staying home the others and zooming in. Our students had to wear their masks in the hallways, in the bathrooms, and whenever social distancing couldn’t be accomplished. When in the classroom the students and teacher were able to take the mask off. Teachers and students needed to wear a mask if the teacher came to help with something or the student had to get up for any reason. It did work. I wasn’t sure it would work for my grade 2 kids but they did. A great job. We hand sanitized before snack and after and we were allowed to go out for a recess as a class (not a grade) and the kids had to hand sanitize before and after that as well. We came back in the elementary school for 1/2 days only so that that the whole ES wasn’t in at the same time. The other half of the day the students zoomed with their specialist teachers.

    Reply
  11. Linda Snook

    Thank you for sharing this very useful, practical exercise. has the college considered creating small cohorts, such as roommates or suite mates taking the same courses?

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      You’re welcome! What you suggest would probably be ideal, but it would be difficult as students have already pre-registered for fall courses independently of each other. I know very little about what’s being planned for the residential side of campus in light of the pandemic.

      Reply
  12. Brian

    Hello!
    It was great to see your experiment! I, too, could only fit 15 desks, 6 feet apart. My administration is insisting on no less than 20 desks (50% capacity) in the classroom with 30 kids on the roster. We now have to figure out a rotation schedule (rotating in and out of the classroom) since all elementary students will be at school full time. All students can now only be separated by 3 feet. Did you get to reduce your roster or did they add allocations?

    Reply
    1. Janet Davis Post author

      Brian, I teach at the collegiate level, so my circumstances are quite different. I’m actually hoping to do most of my teaching online, and meet students only in small groups or individually. Best wishes to you!

      Reply

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