Editor’s note: Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.
It’s become a kind of math problem for educators.
A Utah teacher has an average of 25 kids in elementary school or 29 for junior high and high school. Her classroom is 900 square feet. Can she fit all of the students in at 6 feet apart, to be socially distant during the pandemic?
The answer, according to many who’ve tried it, is a resounding no.
With most schools reopening across the state this week, The Salt Lake Tribune spoke to several educators to see how much space they could realistically get between desks. One teacher said she’s tried everything she can think of and can separate her students by just 20 inches. Another said he’s got a smaller than average number of kids who will be attending in person, but he can still only get a little more than 3 feet between them.
Part of the issue is that Utah’s average class sizes are the largest in the nation. Some classes are much larger than the average, with close to 40 kids in one room. Both the governor and the Utah Board of Education have acknowledged that will make distancing a challenge in returning to classrooms this year.
So while health experts recommend 6 feet, the board has encouraged teachers to shoot instead for 3 feet. If that’s not possible, it noted in its instruction manual for schools, seat students “as far apart as reasonably possible.” And take the measurement from one student’s face to another’s — not the edges of their desks — to get a better result.
Educators say that solution has left them worried. The short distances, they fear, leave them and their students susceptible to getting sick.
“I’m concerned it’s not enough,” said Becky Jones, who teaches at Eagle Valley Elementary School.
And the math question is more complicated, too. It doesn’t take into account the need for aisles to walk in or the fact that students in high school can only get in their chairs from one side because they’re connected to the desk. There also can’t be kids pushed right up against the whiteboard at the front of the room. And there needs to be space for the teacher, too.
Students are required to face forward, as well, so that they are not breathing face to face. That means creating a circle isn’t an option.
Here’s a look at the measurements in four Utah classrooms and what teachers have to say:
When Jones arranged the desks in her classroom at Eagle Valley Elementary, she said, she was extremely concerned. She was going to have 25 students this fall and only four had elected to do their schooling online.
Her room is small, which normally doesn’t bother her. She likes to have her second graders close, anyway, so they get to know each other and make friends. But now, trying to fit 21 in suddenly felt similar to a sardine can.
After moving the desks over and over, the most distance she could get side-to-side was 20 inches. “It’s not even 2 feet between them,” Jones said. And there’s 26 inches from the back of one chair to the front of the desk behind it.
The only way she could get even 3 feet all around, she determined, would be if she only had 15 students in person or if she took out the walking perimeters (which “wouldn’t be functional,” she added).
Jones works for Alpine School District, the largest in the state. Classes there started last week. She said she’s been feeling a little better since the first day, as she’s watched her students keep their masks on, stand apart in the hallways and wash their hands before coming in each morning. And she likes that the days have been shortened as a precaution.
She’d feel more comfortable, though, if they were able to better distance in the classroom because it’s where kids still spend most of their time.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Jones said. “I want to keep us all safe.”
‘Exactly 2 feet’
Mindy Madsen teaches at a high school in Granite School District where this year her smallest class period will have 26 students. Her largest will have 36.
To fit that many kids, she’s got desks pushed up against one side wall, as well as touching tight to the back wall (to where she can’t open the cupboards there).
The desks, she said, are in rows that have “exactly 2 feet” between them — as much space as she could get. But there’s not enough room front to back, so many of the chairs are right up against the next desk behind.
“That’s the only option,” Madsen said. “I just don’t have enough room. It’s not physically possible.”
Her school recommended that teachers tape off some desks to create distance between students. Madsen has 40 desks in her room total. For her largest class, that would mean taping off four. That wouldn’t make much of a difference, she said.
To try to make up for it, she’s staggered the rows so that kids aren’t lined up with each other.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be 6 feet,” she said. “But I think the thing that’s been frustrating is that there was a lot of conversation early on about making them 3 feet apart. That’s not possible either.”
In Granite District, students can choose day to day or even class by class whether to attend in person or remotely. If all 36 students show up for her fullest period, as they’ve indicated that they plan to, Madsen worries that one person with the coronavirus could infect the whole room in such tight quarters — as well as the next class, if the desks aren’t sanitized.
Madsen believes that administrators and state officials didn’t consider all “the little pieces” that factor into distancing in a classroom when they encouraged schools to reopen. Maybe the math works out on paper. For instance, though, the chairs in her room are attached to the desk on one side with a metal bar. That means students can only get in on one side. If she pushed the wrong side up against a well, then, that wouldn’t work.
“That was just ignored,” she said. “Likewise, there has to be room to move in aisles, for students to get up and move or go to the restroom.”
She was also only able to get about 3.5 feet from the front row for herself to stand at the board and teach. She’s supposed to have 6 feet. That’s especially recommended for teachers because they have a group of kids facing them, breathing their direction, and because they’re usually more at risk for serious complications from the virus because of their age or health conditions.
One of the biggest pieces of advice from public health experts, Madsen added, has been physical distancing. And in her room, there’s no room for that.
Between 2.5 and 3 feet
Mallory Gorringe’s hope was to get a yard stick’s distance between the desks in her classroom — “if I can.”
She’s still working to arrange them, but she’s getting close. When she first got into her new room at Southland Elementary in Jordan School District, there was just 17 inches. After removing a few desks for the students who would be working online and pulling out some extra furniture, she’s got between 2.5 and 3 feet around each desk.
“Now, I’d say 4 feet would be ideal, if I can do that,” she said with a laugh. “They want us to be 6 feet, but I know that’s not going to happen.”
One thing she worries about, in particular, is trying to make sure there’s enough space that her students can’t reach out and touch each other while they’re sitting down. She teaches second graders and said that can be a problem. They get excited. And they like making friends.
Gorringe wants to find a balance where her students don’t feel so separated that it potentially stunts social development but not so close as to spread the virus.
“I don’t want the kids to feel like they don’t have friends or can’t have friends,” she added.
She’s also trying to reserve some space at the front of the classroom so that she can have her students line up for lunch, for instance, and still be socially distanced. Because they’re young, Gorringe added, it will take practice. She wants room for error — literally.
Gorringe will have 19 students this year in person. That feels manageable given that her classes have been bigger in years past.
‘A little over 3 feet’
Aaron Woodbury considers himself lucky to have gotten “a little over 3 feet” between the desks in his classroom at David Gourley Elementary in Kearns.
He was originally supposed to have 22 students in person, but nine have since elected to do their work remotely, so now he only has 13 that will be there face-to-face. That has helped immensely to create more space.
Still, though, like the other teachers, Woodbury said there was “just no way” to get 6 feet even with the smaller numbers.
“It’s not as bad as it could be,” he said, “but it’s not as good, either.”
Normally, he would have his third graders hang up their coats and backpacks in the cubbies in his classroom. This year, so they don’t congregate, he’s going to have them keep their belongings at their desks.
Additionally, he’s using some of that cubby space to keep a bucket where the rags used to wipe down the desks will go. He’s put extra space between that and any chairs so students aren’t near any possible contaminants. And he’s set up shields at each desk, too, for extra protection.
The desk spacing, he said, has been a big concern about returning. Woodbury was originally supposed to be able to teach online. But Granite District later changed its plans for elementary schools and said he had to return to the classroom.
Now, he’s trying to figure out how to teach students both in person and online at the same time. He lives in a high-poverty area, so he’s especially worried about any families falling behind who have elected to learn remotely. And he worries about those returning, as well, when, by the start of August, there was a 22% positive rate with virus tests in the ZIP code surrounding the school.
It seems like there’s no way to win but 100 ways to lose.
“I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to stay open completely throughout the year,” Woodbury said. “I’m nervous about a lot of things.”
He’s added a Plexiglas barrier around his desk. And there are fans set up around the room to help circulate air. He’s got sanitizer, too. In years past his supply has run out, so he hopes there’s enough this time.
Woodbury thinks about how kids may not get as sick from the virus. But he knows they can still bring it home to their families. What happens in his classroom, he said — including how far apart he can get the desks — can have far-reaching consequences.
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