If colleges and universities invite students to take courses on campus this fall, the obvious COVID-19 challenges they face will be the need for social distancing, contact tracing and the minimizing of large-group indoor meetings. We purposely design higher education for intense social interaction within indoor spaces, so higher education’s educational architecture now becomes its major weaknesses in any planning scenario. Although educational leaders and safety committees are discussing numerous plans, I want to make the case for one of those ideas: block scheduling, preferably in outdoor venues.
A few American colleges practice block scheduling, such as Colorado College and Cornell College in Iowa, so the practice is not something that has not been tried and tested. In a block-scheduling situation, a student takes, and a faculty member teaches, one course at a time during a three- to four-week period. For example, Colorado College faculty teach one block during a three-and-a-half-week period. Over all, students still take four to five classes during a semester, but they take only one at a time.
Flexibility and focus have always been the benefits of block scheduling, but in our current situation, this approach offers not only those but also numerous other advantages. From the start, block scheduling allows administrators flexibility regarding when students might return to the campus, which is the reason why one institution has adopted a modified form of it. If an institution hosts five blocks in the fall, it could still move students from online to on-campus classes after the first, second or perhaps even the third block.
When students return to the campus, block scheduling minimizes the contact that comes from attending five or six different classes at a time. Students would attend one class in one classroom. Even if a classroom in used twice during the day for two different classes, it would make sanitizing the classrooms much easier, since sanitizing would only need to be done twice a day after each class. Of course, if the class is able to meet outside most of the time, that would help even more.
For faculty members, block scheduling would minimize the number of student contacts they experience during each three- to four-week period. They would only be exposed to students in one class instead of students from two to four different classes, depending upon one’s load.
Furthermore, faculty members with research responsibilities would have extended time to do research during the times they are not meeting for class. As a result, they could stay off the campus for the extended periods of time when they are not teaching. Ideally, administrators would schedule faculty research time off campus between each block class, so faculty would actually have time to be briefly “quarantined” after each class.
Alternatively, even faculty members who have to conduct their research at a lab on the campus would only be exposed to other people working in the lab during those particular research blocks. In addition, graduate students who usually only take three courses per semester would have two blocks to be able to focus only on lab work, perform independent studies or teach a course. Most important, their social contacts during a block would be minimized.
In general, such arrangements would help significantly with social distancing and contact tracing. Faculty and staff members would be exposed to fewer people on a regular basis. If an outbreak occurs within a class, it would be much easier to trace the students’ or faculty member’s contacts. If the whole class had to quarantine, administrators could move it online without interrupting the schedules of other students and faculty members. The professor who had to quarantine would also not be taken away from other classes they might be teaching at that time.
Over all, in light of the risks of maintaining a mixed schedule spread throughout the semester, it could very well be an institution’s civic and moral responsibility to move to block scheduling in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19.