What Does Good Classroom Design Look Like in the Age of Social Distancing?

School Infrastructure

What Does Good Classroom Design Look Like in the Age of Social Distancing?

By Robert Dillon     Jun 22, 2020

What Does Good Classroom Design Look Like in the Age of Social Distancing?

Where we learn matters. This truth has exploded as we have waded through the realities of emergency remote learning.

As a profession, we have honorably pivoted to meet the needs of students, but all of us have experienced the soft spots of our strategy. We have seen students lack access to technology and Wi-Fi. We have watched as students with additional challenges, including those with physical or learning disabilities, fade from technology-rich learning, and we have even seen our most driven students burn out from the daily grind of hours on video conferences and completing assignments online.

All of this has us eager to be back in the same physical space as our students as soon as possible. Nothing replaces proximity when it comes to fostering relationships and building trusted connections with students.

The realities of COVID-19 spreading in our communities without a vaccine or herd immunity means that a return to full schools without restrictions is simply out of our reach for many months. We will likely see students returning to school in shifts to classrooms that have been specifically designed to protect students and teachers. Cafeterias, gymnasiums, and libraries may be off limits. Practices we once took for granted, such as community supply stores, learning in groups and soft seating may be on hold for now. All of these things will stretch our ability to redesign our spaces so that students can explore, discover, and connect in meaningful ways.

As the number of things that remain out of our control grows (spacing of desks, movement in and between classes, scheduling), there are still a number space design considerations that we can control and which can allow our students to truly benefit from where they learn. Consider these five ways to craft your classroom in these unique moments when we need to balance the health and humanity of our spaces.

Signage and First Impressions

Returning to a school building for the first time since we were all jettisoned to emergency remote learning will be a stressful event. Many teachers and students haven’t gathered in large groups since March, so this return to school will elicit a variety of emotions from everyone. To support students’ emotional needs, it will be important to set the right tone with the signage that fills our spaces.

From the front doors of the school, through the hallways, and into our classrooms, do we have signage that cares for all or produces fear? Are we asking people to be a part of a responsible community or filling them with negative messages that lack empathy for the emotional stress of returning to school? There is definitely a need for everyone to understand the community health rules of a space, such as frequent hand washing and donning masks, but this doesn’t have to be our leading message. Let all spaces acknowledge the reality, but stress belonging, community and the joy of being together again.

Optimizing the Perimeter

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments may have control over how we design the floor plan in our classrooms (i.e., six feet of space between desks, directional walking patterns, coordinated movement between spaces), educators have control over how we design the perimeter of our classrooms.

Fill the walls with only essential items for learning. During emergency remote learning, we have realized that students can learn without the anchor charts and inspirational posters on the wall. We shouldn’t design a sterile space, but instead design with fresh eyes and ask these questions. Does having this item on the wall add to the visual clutter or support daily learning? Can I move more learning resources away from the front of the learning space to calm and focus students on presentations and content? In what ways, can I design with a color palette in mind that brings a coherence to the space? Answering these questions and focusing on the spaces that you can control will allow the classroom to be a place of normalcy during a time when all of the rest of school feels different.

Minimize Teacher Only Space

This was always a good idea, but with the mandated restrictions on space, we need to double down items that fill up space with no real purpose. Start by looking at the teacher-only space in the room—and if you don’t know what spaces are teacher-only, ask students to go stand in spaces where they feel are implicitly off limits. This will give you a sense of what spaces have been removed from student use. If we are limited by the rule that only allows 10-15 people in a space, then every square foot matters. Consider ways to add 20-30 square feet back to the space available for students. This addition by subtraction will help give students some breathing room.

Movement and Choice

Intentional space design is anchored in the concepts of maximizing physical movement and providing students with choice over where they learn. This has resulted in the flexible, agile and active classroom efforts that had incredible momentum before COVID-19 disoriented all aspects of learning.

Learning science continues to show us that movement and choice are key to optimal learning. But in this sliver of life these optimal design elements must be put on hold to mitigate the risks of spreading the virus. Even so, we can’t eliminate these elements in totality. Having students stand for 3-5 minutes behind their desks to listen to the teacher talk can keep the brain oxygenated and primed for learning. Giving students permission to stand along the sides or in the back of the room or even the chance to sit on the tops of their desks will promote choice and supply variation to a room that has been sterilized by its arrangement. In some locations, moving learning to an outdoor space is an option, and when available can provide the movement needed to greater engagement and joy to learning.

Space is Time and Time is Space

Space and time are interconnected, and when we talk about the aspects of space that we can control in these trying times, we should also talk about intentionally designing the time that we have with students. Face-to-face time shouldn’t be a content blitz filled with the voice of the teacher, as most of this can happen in virtual learning; instead, use this time to connect and listen. Use in-class time to promote conversation and community. Use it to calm and lower stress. In the coming months, our time with students may not have daily consistency, so it will be essential to design the time in our physical spaces to support the whole child. It will also be a time to anchor learning in relevant, meaningful contexts. Sync time design and space design to support the academic and emotional needs of all students.

This will be a very non-linear return to our school buildings. In some locations, students will come to school with a new type of schedule. Their in-person learning may pause because of contagion or public health concern and then return to the physical space again. This cycle could happen many times throughout the upcoming school year. For other students and families, they will remain in a virtual only space because of their unique needs or the success that they have found in the virtual learning environment.

All of these variables will require educators to design with the flexibility that allows for students to fluidly move between physical and virtual learning spaces. Design with this reality in mind. Make sure that our digital learning spaces provide easy access to resources and learning tasks. Minimize the digital clutter in these spaces. Model the power of learning near natural light and bringing fresh air into the mix whenever possible, so that students carry this into their home learning spaces.

Where we learn matters, and as we consider the launch of the new school year, take time to listen to students, notice their needs and incorporate that in which we can’t control into the design elements that we can control. With these efforts, we can heal, remain healthy and continue to bring a deep sense of humanity to our work to guide the learning for our students, students that are eager to be connected with their learning community again.

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