Socially-Distanced Classrooms Would Erase (Most Of) The Benefits Of In-Person Instruction

by Nick Ash
Originally Published: 
Pattern of empty school desks on a blue background.
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Kids need to be back in school! In recent weeks it has become a sort of mantra. After a season of quarantine, we’ve disrupted children’s lives quite enough. It’s time to get back to normal, and that means getting back into the schools. Of course we need to take certain safety precautions—reduced class sizes, disinfected classrooms, masks, social distancing—but (so goes the theory) whatever it takes, we’ve got to put the kids in school.

As a middle school English teacher, I get it. It was a huge disruption when, in the middle of March, we shut down our site due to the coronavirus pandemic. I had no trouble posting my assignments on Google Classroom, recording instructional videos, or meeting for class discussions on Zoom—but that wasn’t the point. Teaching is not just giving out information. It is so much more. The encouraging pats on the back, the spontaneous chats in the hallway, the impromptu extra help sessions at lunchtime. It’s being there for the kids—sometimes just literally, physically being there. It’s hard to capture all that when, instead of meeting face to face, you’re looking at your students’ tiny little faces in those tiny little boxes on Zoom.

Our semester of distance learning was, on the whole, a great success. Even remotely, I could offer the same encouraging smiles, the same consoling words as before. Though there were no little talks in the hallway or cafeteria, I could always send a quick email or a private chat message to a student who seemed to be struggling. As needed, I made myself available for extra help sessions via Zoom; one time, I even held a special Zoom session to mediate a conflict between two students. The distance learning modality was more effective than I ever would have predicted—and yet, I (and every other teacher I talked to) longed for a return to normalcy, a return to the classroom. No matter how successful we were teaching from home, there’s nothing like being physically in the room with your students.

So I understand why so many people feel it is urgent to get back to the classrooms, get back to our normal routines. We wish we could erase the past several months, resume the lives we had before, and let school children be normal school children again.

All of that makes sense to me, until I think about what reopened schools will look like. If we reopen the schools safely—really safely, according to CDC guidelines—I believe the regime of masks, social distancing, disinfecting, and so on will effectively erase the benefits of in-person instruction.

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Imagine a classroom with just five, six, seven students in it, their desks spaced six feet apart. They can’t work in groups or pairs. No reading groups, no think-pair-share, no lab partners. As the students work at their desks, the teacher can’t walk around the room and check the students’ work, can’t whisper words of praise or gentle corrections—you have to come in much closer than six feet to do that. All the teacher’s verbal feedback must be public, and practically shouted from a distance.

There are no warm, nurturing smiles—all the teacher’s nonverbal encouragements are hidden behind an expressionless mask. All the teacher’s instructions, all the students’ questions and answers, are delivered from behind masks, which means everyone is shouting all period in order to be heard. In the past few months, most of us have had 5-10 minute interactions through masks: you can have a conversation, but it’s pretty exhausting. It’s good enough for basic exchanges, but it is hardly conducive to high-level discussion.

Of course we would work around all the little logistical problems. It would be merely inconvenient if students can never borrow a pencil, share a piece of paper, or pass a stapler around the room, without endless gobs of hand sanitizer and disinfectant. They would get used to filing into the room one at a time, being careful not to brush against one another in the corridor or the doorway. We could arrange the lunch schedule so that each student can sit at his or her own lonely table, always six feet away from the others. These things are possible, but they would hardly constitute a return to normal. Rather, the masked faces and the distancing would be a constant, and potentially traumatic, reminder of the pandemic.

That social-emotional piece is the bit that worries me most. Although I am not a trained counselor (and our school’s guidance counselor is excellent), pretty much anyone who works with adolescents is, at times, a sort of counselor. On any given day, one or more of the students in your class is having the worst day ever, so you are ready at all times to lend a sympathetic ear, or even a shoulder to cry on. This is often given as one of the reasons you want to be on site, rather than just connecting with the students via Zoom.

But think about what social-emotional learning would look like in the masked, socially-distanced, new normal. If you notice that a child is upset, you can’t take her aside and discreetly ask what’s wrong. The soft, sensitive tone of voice you use when you’re consoling a child is too quiet and sounds too muffled to convey anything through a mask. There will be no crying on shoulders. At most, perhaps, you could push a box of Kleenex to a student who is weeping at a safe distance of six feet away.

Ironically, the remote classroom is a warmer, more nurturing environment than the masked and socially distanced classroom that complies with CDC guidelines. I would rather see my students’ faces in little boxes than be in the room with them and not see their faces at all. I would rather share authentic feedback and genuine encouragement, even if I’m sharing them electronically, than appear in person in a room where we’re afraid to interact.

I want my classroom back. I want things to be normal again. But not like this. I would rather continue with distance learning, and return to the building when we can really return—faces and all—than proceed with this new normal that is not normal at all.

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