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Safe School Reopenings Prevented by Social Distancing Difficulties

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Girl in classroom taking exam trying to have safe school reopenings

Planning and executing safe school reopenings is a top priority. For most children, particularly those in disadvantaged communities, remote learning is far inferior to learning in classrooms, and for some, online learning is not possible. In order to assist in minimizing the risks of contracting COVID-19 when reopening schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a list of guidelines, which include promoting heightened hygiene, maintaining air flow and social distancing.

Classrooms not designed for social distancing

CDC guidelines recommends separating desks separated by six feet to ensure proper social distancing. However, our school classrooms were never designed with pandemic prevention in mind. They are too small and have too many students. As a result, schools will find it next to impossible to do social distancing inside the classroom. These spacing issues are going to make it challenging to accomplish safe school reopenings.

Classroom sizes vary from state to state and district to district, but generally fall within the 800 to 1000 square-foot range for area and have an average of 22 students per teacher. A spacious 1000 square-foot classroom of an average class size would give 45.5 square feet of space per student. Of course this calculation is optimistic as it doesn’t account for the teacher or any tables.

The square-footage required per person is usually much less. New Hampshire requires 32 square feet per person for high school students or a 800 square feet for a general classroom, whichever is greater. The New York Department of Health requires 22 to 23 square feet per student in a basic plus classroom.

The simplest method of determining how much square-footage a student needs to properly social distance is to consider the area around a student as a circle with a radius of six feet. Area equals pi times radius squared, which is 113 square feet. This area ignores the desk with its chair and the size of the person, though. Taking in an additional three by two square-foot area where the student sits, the area required for proper social distancing changes to 185 square feet. For those who are interested, 185 square feet was calculated from 113 + (3+12)x2 + (2+12)x3.

The area required for social distancing, 185 square feet, is nearly eight times more space per person than New York’s 22 square feet per person, six times New Hampshire’s 32 feet per person, and even four times that of the optimistic 45.5 square feet per person. Schools will have to look for more space.

The first place schools will look for space is in underutilized rooms. Larger schools in areas with declining populations could possibly obtain enough extra space if gyms, auditoriums, and cafeterias were repurposed as classroom space by adding partitions. It would not be ideal due to the cross noise, but it could be done. For most schools, though, this still would not provide enough space. The number of students in the United States continues to rise every year, and most schools are close to capacity, particularly those in cramped urban spaces.

Contingency Plans

Schools might be able to free up space by teaching outdoors. Much of the United States would find this option disappearing in mid-autumn, though, when it became too cold for students to be outside. The third of the U.S. that lives in warmer climates might be able to stay outside longer, assuming it didn’t get too hot. One possibility is building tent pavilions in fields to provide shelter from the rain.

However, any school that chose to go outside would have to make a storm contingency plan. According to the National Weather Service, tent pavilions are not considered suitable shelters in thunderstorms.  A mad rush for an actual building would result in counter-productive crowding and a break from social distancing. Realistically, the cold, heat, or the presence of thunderstorms would eliminate the outdoor space for the vast majority of schools.

Empty desks in classroom instead of safe school reopenings

Another possibility for all schools would be the use of a hybrid school schedule. Specific grades could be allocated certain days to attend school in person and certain days to do remote learning from home. For example, the sixth graders would come in on Mondays and Wednesdays but learn remotely on the other days. While the seventh graders would come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then learn remotely on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. During the days that students came to school in person, they would be spread out into more classrooms.

On paper, the hybrid school schedule appears feasible. However, in terms of budgets, it is not. Spreading students out into more classrooms would require more teachers, most likely doubling the number of teachers. State governments are recording massive deficits. Unlike the Federal government, the vast majority of the states require a  balanced budget every year. As a result of budget shortfalls, hundreds of thousands of teachers have been laid off. The only way to hire more teachers might be through an infusion of Federal money into state government coffers. Even with this increased funding, doubling the number of teachers would not happen.

Safe school reopenings will be a challenge

Without going to a hybrid school schedule or vastly increasing underutilized space, schools will find that in-person teaching is not safe due to the lack of social distancing. In normal classrooms, students will have at most four feet of space around them and more likely two or three. This little space would not allow for safe school reopenings.

Even if students are wearing masks, the risk of an asymptomatic carrier infecting others in the classroom is high at such short distances. Furthermore, getting all students to adhere to the school mask regulations will be a challenge upon itself, particularly with younger students. Masks regulations should not be a substitute for social distancing. Schools need to have enough space for their students to safely reopen.

There are solutions out there. Hybrid schedules would increase the amount of space available per student. Split schedules would better utilize the space available at schools. However, each of these solutions requires money. School need budgets increased, not trimmed. Also, they need more teachers need hired, not laid off. Safe school reopenings depend on fixing spacing issues.

Read more on how Covid-19 is impacting schools with staff shortagesbus driver shortages, and poor ventilation potentially causing super-spreader events.