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Brief #  52 Education Policy

 The Covid-era Classroom

By Emily Carty 

January 21, 2021

The “traditional” classroom is facing an identity crisis. As teachers throughout the country have turned to remote learning or modified in-person learning, the classroom as we know it is changing. With distancing in the classroom, learning on electronic devices, and everyone in masks, the physical attributes of a modern classroom will certainly be different at least until the pandemic subsides.

So far teachers have been reporting several new aspects of the modern covid-classroom. The CDC has provided educational centers with guidelines for reopening and arranging classrooms so students and teachers will be safe. Many school districts have added onto those recommendations or have created more rigorous requirements for reopening. These requirements are the, by now, familiar six feet of distancing, directional walking patterns, and limited capacity of students indoors. While teachers are mostly required to wear masks, in some cases it’s up to the teacher to decide if students must wear them in the class. Either way, a masked classroom is a definitive marker that things have changed.

With little control over the space and desks spread six feet apart, classrooms in the Covid-era are literally and figuratively sterile. One resource for teachers suggests we consider if “we have signage that cares for all or produces fear.” Ensuring students feel welcome at school and in the classroom will be key to success. Teachers must work within these space constraints to create a learning environment with choice and safe movement. Educators are familiar with the model that choice and movement within the educational space is beneficial for learning. Providing students with spatial options, while having them remain near or at their desks will be challenging but likely necessary to promote engagement. This might look like mask breaks outside, standing near their desk for a portion of class, or even sitting on their desk. Since reading nooks and close discussion groups will be on hold, new ideas for movement in and outside will be crucial.

When it comes to classroom supplies, teachers worry about the extra costs and time that sanitation practices might require. While teachers don’t necessarily control the ventilation systems, and many are without classroom sinks for handwashing, building in sanitation and hygiene practices will be critical. Things like sanitation stations upon entering the classroom and wipes on desks, or individual sanitation kits instead, could be implemented and systematized for rapid use before instruction.

While these things are doable in theory, the cost of Covid is  proving tough for teachers. The New York Times reported one teacher’s solution to the risk of contracting the virus — makeshift desk dividers from shower curtains. Another teacher spent nearly $2000 of their own money on Covid-related supplies. For one special education teacher and choir teacher, challenges of space, materials, and the physical appearance of the teacher with PPE have already made themselves apparent.

Minimizing contact with other students, and especially other classes or grades throughout the school day are the driving factors for school and classroom changes. Some hybrid-learning models require students to be on a zoom call with their peers at home or even across the classroom. This promotes community, but also ensures distance. Screens in the classroom can facilitate collaboration despite a distance. For schools in session, staggered bell schedules, students remaining in one classroom all day, and classes spread out into new spaces are the norm. Regulating when and where students can walk through the halls is also built into Covid-safe plans. With regard to lunch, some students are sitting six feet apart, on the same side of the table, so they can avoid facing one another. Some recommendations to normalize this new and ever-changing spatial order at school are to focus on routines to give students some sort of structure no matter where they are learning.

Another thing teachers are considering is repurposing existing spaces where possible. If students aren’t to be sitting directly next to one another, purchasing new desks or rearranging seats will be necessary. Additionally, classes might need to be moved so that there is more room. If possible using the gym or an outdoor space could be a way to maximize space between students and minimize the risk of Covid. It has also been recommended that schools use smooth and easy-to-clean surfaces (no more colorful class rugs!) in the near future, as it will make disinfecting surfaces much quicker and easier. Teachers have been doing this throughout the pandemic, but constraints of funding, space, weather, and safety are real. Not every school or teacher has the money, flexibility or weather to create a great outdoor classroom, buy protective gear to deck out the class and students, or replace old materials and decorations with easy-to-clean ones. Nor does every school have ample space for moving around, using empty rooms, or distancing students.

New teachers reflect on their first year during a pandemic, and while they expect things to be different, most are relatively positive that this era will turn out great because of the passion and love for education that teachers hold. While teachers are remaining strong, many US classrooms will be without the generous support from parents, paraeducators, and other staff who take on myriad tasks to ensure teachers can focus on teaching. With limited adults in the classroom to minimize risk of Covid, some teachers with large classes will have to revise strategies so that lack of in-class support won’t be an issue.

With all of these considerations, students and safety are being placed at the forefront. At the end of the day everyone is working with what they have, or don’t have, with safety being prioritized. As the pandemic rages on, schools will continue to refine their plan, with hopes set on Biden’s support for education. With increased and equitable financial support, schools will be able to do a better job at keeping everyone safe and learning throughout the pandemic.

Engagement Resources

American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education — This membership association has resources for teachers and educators to advocate for policy and legislation related to schools, teaching, and professional development. It provides great tools for reaching out to your representatives, learning about relevant policy, and teaching equitably in the Covid-era.

National Education Association – EdJustice — NEA EdJustice provides lots of resources to take action for education justice. It puts students at the center and has a fabulous collection of resources addressing equity, racial justice, social justice, and more. Join their community to get updates on justice initiatives, sign petitions, or find resources for teaching and learning mindfully in Covid times.

Adopt A Classroom — Find a Teacher or School in your area and donate directly to them! This accountable and easy to use platform allows you to find educators in your area who need support and provides you with a way to directly contribute to them.

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