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To prepare for the upcoming fall semester, faculty members in the School of Science at Siena College tested three scenarios for a socially distanced classroom based on published guidelines from the New York State Governor’s Office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given our class sizes, we have had to plan for some students to take courses in person and a portion of the class to connect remotely. We took an empirical approach to: 1) evaluate how the classroom functions given recommended masking and six-foot spacing, 2) examine how easily in-person and remote students can interact, and 3) identify unforeseen logistical challenges.

We primarily did this for our own benefit, but the experience has proven highly valuable not only to us as participants but also to other colleagues at Siena. Thus, we’d like to share our impressions with the broader academic community.

Please note that we are not evaluating the safety of campus plans for fall 2020 -- we have merely sought to discover the practical implications of the published guidelines upon our pedagogy. Indeed, many participants have significant concerns that even the current recommendations calling for reduced occupancy and masking might prove insufficient to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

We tested three scenarios:

  • A class meeting featuring collaborative group work. Face-to-face participants were in a 1,100-square-foot classroom (pre-COVID-19 capacity of 36, preliminary COVID-19 capacity of 20) with long, movable tables and free-standing chairs, both on casters. Participants were seated in designated chairs a little more than six feet apart, and groups of four were seated as if at the corners of squares, facing one another.
  • A lecture in our campus’s 155-seat lecture hall (preliminary COVID-19 capacity of 28). The room has fixed stadium seating and small desks that swing up from the armrest. Participants were seated at least six feet apart, which required three seats between participants with empty rows between those with seated participants.
  • An outdoor class with group work. We moved to a grassy area outside our science buildings.

For each scenario, the organizer acted as the instructor. Eleven faculty members took on the role of in-person students, and an additional four joined as students by Zoom.

Key Findings

Here’s what we learned. We hope faculty at other campuses might consider these findings helpful.

Masks and spacing make it difficult to hear and be heard. When collaborating with physical distancing, noise is a big problem. We found that the groups of four struggled to communicate, and pairs worked best. Group work, in the sense of having more than two people, may not be feasible.

We also found that distancing did not affect all voices equally; soft-spoken individuals, particularly some of our female colleagues, were the hardest to hear. Particular care is needed to ensure that these students continue to speak and be heard.

Also, since sound intensity follows the inverse-square law, the perceived volumes of voices within a group are not much different than those external to the group. People respond by speaking more loudly, and so it is harder for teammates to hear each other over the background noise.

For collaborative learning to be effective, increasing sound absorption in the classroom would be helpful and, in some situations, necessary.

People rely on visual communication cues more than they realize. Communicating while masked requires more energy and focus than usual. Just as Zoom can be exhausting, communicating through a mask -- both speaking and listening -- is also exhausting. This is true for everyone, and particularly so for anyone with a hearing impairment and for people for whom English is a second language.

In-person students had difficulty interacting with Zoom students and vice versa. The fact that students were both in person and on Zoom presented challenges. Those on Zoom could not hear many students in the room. And, in fact, everyone in the room, including the instructor, had trouble hearing students on Zoom. For some types of interactions, that could perhaps be overcome by connecting the Zoom session to a classroom sound system, but that might be disruptive if used, for instance, to let the instructor interact with specific breakout rooms.

An instructor managing students in person and by Zoom might need to think about them as completely separate classes being held simultaneously, which is difficult to manage well. As students on Zoom cannot see when the instructor is engaging with groups of students in the classroom, that could lead to delays in responding to student requests for help and frustration for remote participants.

If students are joining on Zoom, a tablet is essential. Without a tablet, the instructor is tied to the podium, rendering them unable to move around the room to interact with different in-person student groups. Also, a tablet can be used as a virtual whiteboard that all students can see. Smartphones are a partial solution. They permit hearing remote students, but the smaller screen makes it difficult to see multiple students or the chat text.

Lectures go more smoothly than group work. Even so, students often could not hear questions raised by fellow students. The instructor must repeat every question loudly. They also need to more carefully manage active learning “clicker questions” or other styles of breakout questions to include all students.

Outdoor classes work but require more structure than indoors. Being outside reduced ambient noise, making group work easier. But it was harder to stay focused, and not everyone enjoys sitting on grass or is able to do so. If teaching outdoors, faculty members should:

  • Pay special attention to how the lesson is structured and communicate clear objectives for the outdoor sessions in advance;
  • Think ahead about seating options; and
  • Plan on flexibility when scheduling outdoor sessions, because extreme heat, cold or precipitation will be distracting, even if tents are available.

Also, if remote students will be included, the instructor should test internet access and speed at the outdoor location.

Transitions between classes will cause traffic jams and lapses in social distancing. If each student must disinfect their workspaces, one shared spray bottle per classroom isn’t sufficient. Also, how students get into and out of rooms, congregate outside rooms before class and so forth all require careful thought. Sufficient interclass intervals will be required to disinfect and clear classrooms before new sessions begin.

The workload of faculty members and IT professionals will be substantially higher than usual. The increased technological complexity requires significantly more careful planning and setup time at the beginning and end of classes, as well as more attention to class structure. It will be easier for lessons to get derailed by IT issues. Faculty members will need contingency plans for every lesson, and IT support personnel should be close to high-use teaching spaces to help resolve problems rapidly.

Finally, we strongly recommend that every department should do test classes before the formal beginning of each course.

All of us who participated in the three scenarios have been reconsidering and revising our fall plans based on this experience. The activity both confirmed some anticipated challenges and identified problems that we did not predict. Perhaps it seems risky to gather now for a practice class, particularly in states facing a COVID-19 surge. But we believe that if it is at all possible, it is better to practice now with colleagues you know well than to try new methods in a classroom this coming semester with students you might be meeting for the first time.

In the face of a global pandemic, it feels as though we have no good choices as we prepare for the upcoming term. Nonetheless, sound plans, informed by data, can help us all make the best of a bad situation. We hope that you can use our experience to improve your own.

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