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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.