Teaching in person under physical distancing constraints.

by Harry on July 3, 2020

My plan is to teach in person in the Fall.[1] Three classes: a small class for training TAs; a 10-person class (cap is 15, but for reasons that will become apparent I will not be recruiting to the cap) on teaching and learning; a 30-person upper level ethics class. All will be taught under strict social distancing rules (6 feet) and with everyone required to wear masks. [Needless to say, by September perhaps everything will be online anyway, and, regardless, we’ll have to be prepared to go online at the flick of a switch].

So. How will that work? For now, I’ve requested an additional timeslot for the 30-person class, so that I can do the following: one 75-minute meeting a week with all 30 of them which is more lecture/Q&A than I generally like, and then split the students into 2 groups of 15, each of which meets for a more discussion-intensive meeting. Still — even with 15 students it will be a huge challenge to run a discussion under social distancing rules with masks.

The best resource I’ve come across so far in helping think about the problem is this excellent post by Derek Bruff. He’s considering blended classes (in which some students are videoconferencing into the classroom, and others are in person in the classroom), but the suggestions also seem feasible with all-in-person classes. I have not been an enthusiast for the fishbowl in person, just because I tend to be in crowded rooms with poor acoustics and the moving around of chairs and tables makes it awkward. Well — that won’t be a problem this semester! and I can see fishbowls working well. I’m also considering a variant on his suggestion about pair work — Split the class in two, move them to opposite walls, and make them do the pair work by phone with the person they are standing opposite.

I’m going to be on a team to work up suggestions for our campus this fall. (My college’s team on online teaching already reported, and the results, which I think are both excellent and very well presented, are here). The challenge is that, as far as I know, nobody has actually taught under these conditions before. [2] I’m hoping that we will be allowed to convene groups of students sometime in the summer, go into classrooms and find out how things would actually work (and make films to illustrate various strategies for colleagues).

I would really appreciate other resources and suggestions!

[1] Our campus decided to move all large classes online for the Fall, and that the smaller classes would be split between online and in-person (with all classes online after Thanksgiving). Instructors don’t choose their mode of delivery, but my department at least has been able to match instructors preferences with modes pretty well (I was struck by how many colleagues said they would prefer to teach in one mode, but would accommodate to the needs of the department). Being reasonably fit, under 60, and, frankly, missing my students, I volunteered to teach in person.

[2] I have found exactly one picture of college teaching during the 1918-19 flu, and the students are all wearing masks, but are not physically distanced. Even if I’m wrong and plenty of physical distanced instruction during that pandemic, I’m guessing there’s limited social science about it.



oldster 07.03.20 at 2:38 pm

When I was a young man, I enjoyed rude good health, and had no intuitive feeling for the needs of the disabled. Time has made me less jejune.

The new prevalence of masks has brought home to me that I have been supplementing my failing hearing with an increase in (unconscious) lip-reading. Losing the visual cues has exacerbated my deafness.

So: what does the COVID-safe classroom do for lip-readers?


DCA 07.03.20 at 2:57 pm

The 1918 photo makes an interesting point: the challenge in classrooms (oldster’s comment duly noted) is the distancing not the masking. But do we know how important distancing is if there is masking, particularly masking done with some level of standards? (E.g., multi cloth layers not just a bandanna). And what about upping the airflow, and doing as little recirculating as possible? This might make for some hotter/colder classrooms, but maybe that tradeoff is worth it.

It has seemed to me, throughout, that the details of airborne transmission (including from mouth to air) have gotten relatively little study, and as a result we are overly reliant on simple rules. Perhaps this is because this topic is mostly a physics and engineering problem, not a medical one. The evidence, so far, from the demonstrations is that outdoors, with masks, transmission is not that high even with close spacing.


Adrian 07.03.20 at 3:01 pm

I’d suggest asking the students to wear masks with clear windows if they can. A lot of people who don’t think of themselves as deaf or hard-of-hearing use a bit of lip-reading to boost their hearing (or their auditory processing in noisy environments.)
I mean things like this
I’ve also seen medical-looking masks with a narrower clear window. I’m not sure those are washable/reusable.


Chetan Murthy 07.03.20 at 3:14 pm

The purpose of masks is to reduce the spread of aerosols. And the simulations (and measurements) we’ve seen, show that they do so, by reducing the -distance- that aerosols spread from a speaker/singer/breathing-person. This is good. But
(a) a mask does only some limited good in capturing those micro-droplets in its fabric
(b) a mask that doesn’t have fabric (but a clear window) might be less-effective at doing so?
In any case, I recall that masks seemed to -retard- the velocity of breath/sneeze/etc and also to cause some of the gusts to go up-and-down, instead of -outward-. The opshot of all this is, that in an enclosed space, I don’t quite see how masks help as much, as outside. Because whereas ontside, even on a calm day there is a constant replacement of the surrounding air (as well as sunlight which degrades the virus), indoors there is neither of these. And from what I have read, many buildings are not designed to only bring in fresh air, rather than recirculating air (b/c more energy-efficient that way).

“Distancing” indoors seems to be about two things: (1) get outside of the range of droplets and (reduced b/c masks) aerosol clouds, and (2) reduce the number/density of aerosol-producers (== people). But the longer a group of people stay in an enclosed space, the higher the density of aerosols: those suckers can hang around in the air for hours, and from what I remember reading, they’re contagious for hours, too.

It seems profoundly unwise to subject older people (== “teachers”) to these contagious conditions that might kill them, even with masks and social distancing. And only a little less unwise, to subject young people to the possibility of maiming infections.


hix 07.03.20 at 4:26 pm

Maybe mandating N95 masks is worth considering? They are affordable now. The remaining questions are if the affordable ones are up to the claimed quality standards and if using them there would steal them away from places where they are needed more.
Other than that, good luck with the virus situation, my personal prognosis is rather pessimistic regarding any chance to do in person teaching in the US anytime soon.


DCA 07.03.20 at 5:37 pm

I think the distance used in “distancing” reflects how far droplets get–and a mask will lower this distance because the jet from a cough or sneeze gets pretty much stopped. For aerosols, the range, except in absolutely still air, is very much larger (helped by the boost given by being in the warmer air of an exhalation). For these, dilution is the only immediate remedy. So, agreeing with Murphy, indoors is much worse than outdoors. But for indoors, there are several options: (a) masks and distancing, (b) masks, no distancing, but fewer people in the room (or a bigger room), (c) masks, no distancing, full occupancy. I can easily see the relative risks of (b) vs (c) but wonder about (a) vs (b).


Chetan Murthy 07.04.20 at 12:00 am

hix @ 5: from what I read everywhere, and experience those few times on the street, the problem isn’t “mandate wearing N95 masks” [1] — it’s “get people to wear any sort of mask at all”. I mean, we’ve all seen that moral imbecile with the “I’ve got a breathing problem” vid, yes? [in case there’s more than one, this is a woman at Trader Joe’s I think]. I mean …. several epidemiologists have said that if we -all- wore masks in public, then pretty quickly (like, weeks) we’d have the virus on the decline (== “R0 below 1”).

I suspect that if we all started now (in the US) we could get to where the UK is today, by the end of summer. At which point, well, we could think about opening schools and unis with strict/strict/strict restrictions and controls. I read that in Germany, high school students are tested twice a week. Stuff like that.

But (a) we’re not doing it, (b) the Federal government is doing nothing — they’ve checked-out, and (c) even if we were doing it, the Feds aren’t organizing massive testing capacity, and neither are the states.

[1] BTW, it isn’t clear that N95 masks are the best. Many models have “vents” that vent exhaled air as efficiently as possible (hence, no filtration). These are …. not great. I have this kind (leftover from fire outbreaks a few years ago): I always wear mine with a regular cloth mask beneath (which makes it even harder to breathe, sure) b/c …. I don’t want to just protect me, I want to protect (and be seen to protect, b/c it’s important as a social norm) others.


Chetan Murthy 07.04.20 at 12:23 am

DCA@6: actually, from what I’ve read, the distinction between “droplets” and “aerosols” is based on size — droplets are big enough that gravity is the main consideration, and then fall to earth within 1m of a person typically (hence 2m distance, and observe hand/face hygiene (so you don’t pick ’em up that have fallen on surfaces — “fomites”). “aerosols” are those that are small enough that they evaporate (lose their water) before they hit the earth, and at that point, they can be wafted around in even the slightest breezes. And while we -thought- that aerosols weren’t a means of transmission (back in prehistory March), at this point I think the consensus is that aerosols are a means of transmission. Since they don’t hit earth, the means of rendering them harmless is are: (a) “reduce particle load” (spend less time around other people), (b) dilution (sunlight), (c) dispersion (lots of outside air/wind), and (d) plain old “don’t let concentrations build” (fewer people in indoor spaces).

None of this is promising for schools. None of it.


Harry 07.04.20 at 12:40 am

The stuff about droplets, aerosols, and transmission is very interesting, and I’ve actually found it useful to some extent in thinking about what to do, but I’m calling a stop to it now — if people have relevant experience about the practice of instruction, or just have useful ideas, that’s what I’d welcome right now.


Harry 07.04.20 at 12:44 am

oldster — I had this conversation with a student who is hard of hearing (and, she says, a bad lip reader) just today! She and her roommates are going to try some things out for me this weekend, including standing far away from each other and talking on the phone, for a think-pair-share while looking at each other. If I can, I’ll have her be part of any rehearsal of various strategies that we do in actual classrooms…


ph 07.04.20 at 3:14 am

Thanks for this, Harry, and apologies for a perhaps too robust critique in my last.

This is much better, but the proposals fail (completely?) to take into account the social dimension of learning. The latest data from John Ioannides at Stanford places the risk of death from COVID among those 45 and younger at zero. Yes, that’s right – risk of death effectively zero. Japan tends to social distance normally.

Where the F is the fun in education? As shocking as some may find the idea, lots of student enjoy being in class interacting with other students and with teachers. That this concept isn’t at the f-ing forefront of all thinking about classrooms and pedagogies explains a great deal in my view. You’ll recall, perhaps, the data-gathering exercises my peers and I engaged in to allow students of different years to voice their own concerns and priorities BEFORE the teachers set about determining pedagogies.

Have student concerns been taken fully into account prior to determining practices? Have students even been asked whether they regard having fun as an important part of the educational/classroom experience?

Mine have. Every single one would very MUCH prefer to have fun in the classroom! The Japanese model is instructive. The practices of our own self-selecting group differ greatly from those who do not place a high value on having fun. As do the results. Attendance is excellent, participation levels are high, and in some case the outcomes are superior to in-class learning.

COVID has not yet been treated as the boon to innovation that it is. Too many refuse to adapt and deploy practices that confer and inspire learner autonomy. We eliminate transit time between home and school and between classes. Students can be placed on task immediately. Break-out rooms permit a ‘virtually’ limitless set of activities, and inter-actions.

Our first priority is to emphasise the positive and to help students map the new normal and its topography, searching for opportunities for both pleasure and edification. Eat your vegetables, however, seems to be the standard approach, sadly.

I and few other peers are the only teachers I know who presented Zoom as a net good. Students found the social interaction they so desperately missed weeks before we started ‘teaching.’ One of the most innovative teachers in this tiny group gave a presentation to a group of generally accomplished teachers about a month ago – wowing others with a selection of learner-generated materials – which included a Zoom party held on a Saturday night.

He and I zoomed the following Sunday. He was frankly incensed by the inability of the community of teachers to understand how this all works. The first question he received, he reported, said it all: “How did you GET the students to do all this?” he was asked.

We don’t “GET” students to learn, we help them learn by creating pathways to improved skills and knowledge, and by providing them with the tools which they can use to build their own pathways to success. Making the students’ feelings the principle focus of how we organize their activities in this new environment has to be our main concern. And to do that we must first learn to inhabit this same topography and to become thoroughly aware of various pitfalls and strengths. Based on the most recent conversations I’ve had, most institutions and instructors can’t wait to get back to what they call ‘normal’

Most instructors made only the most half-hearted efforts to adapt, failing themselves first, but also their students. Most can’t wait for an ‘end’ to the new normal. If there ever was a time to upgrade the thinking of university instructors this is surely it. Learning to have fun as teachers in the online – mixed environment of the new normal is our first priority as educators. Because, based on all my experiences as both a student and educator – if the teacher isn’t having fun, nobody else in the class is either.

How can we expect our students to succeed, when we so clearly fail?

Time to take having fun seriously. For real!

“Japanese students find coronavirus measures take the fun out of school”


Neville Morley 07.04.20 at 8:54 am

It is rather disconcerting (@Chetan Murphy #7) to see the current state of the UK being used as any sort of benchmark or target. Things are reopening not because there is any firm evidence that the virus is fully under control, but because the government has decided it’s time to get the economy moving again, and they’ve merrily ditched all the preconditions they originally established.

I likewise wonder about the assumption that old-fashioned face-to-face teaching must be the best; at the least, the pandemic has been quite an exciting opportunity to rethink a lot of taken-for-granted assumptions about why we teach the way we do and whether it’s as good for everyone as we normally think. I’m planning a lot of my teaching for next year about asynchronous discussion boards – the slow seminar, so to speak – and online collaborative activities, not least with the idea that this may get a higher proportion of the group actively engaged. Zoom/Teams will certainly have their uses, but I am worried (as has been a serious issue in schools) how far all students will have adequate broadband and/or privacy for this.


SusanC 07.04.20 at 1:48 pm

My esteemed institution has a classroom that is, in fact, a cupboard. It is somewhat small and lacks windows. It would be fine for the architects originally intended purpose of somewhere to store books, lab equipment, etc. As a classroom, not so much.

(We actually have several of these cupboards-reclassified-as-classrooms).

Presumably, the new world of social distancing is going to rule out holding a class in a cupboard. At least, I hope it will…

(To be fair, even before lockdown, those of us who reach made strenuous efforts to not be the one who drew the short straw and ended up teaching in a cupboard).


Harry 07.04.20 at 2:06 pm

ph and Neville
I was involved in the team that developed my college’s guidelines for teaching online in the fall which, I should say, will account for at least 80% of student credits. I very much agree (unsurprisingly) with ph’s comments about fun and sociality and my team (which was largely responsible for the ‘interactive teaching’ guide tried to take engaging students very seriously. Honestly my campus does not support zoom, which I think is a huge error, and we were not allowed to recommend people getting their own personal subscriptions, but even with the tools we people can use breakout groups productively, and we tried to use the guide to prompt people to do new and interesting things along the lines that Neville mentions. (Our guidelines are here, and I’ve talked about using discussion boards here).

For most students, they will be taking just one, and possibly two, in person classes. So, we’re trying to figure out how to make those classes as good as they can be, in the circumstances, and given the constraints that our health advice is requiring. Its different from developing online guidelines, because the online guidelines can be useful in the longterm whereas… one hopes that teaching in person in a social distancing environment is a one-off!


Harry 07.04.20 at 2:12 pm

To be honest Susan we have rooms like that that were DESIGNED to be classrooms. (Sorry if that sounds like a gambit in the four Yorkshiremen sketch). I imagine that they are ruled out, not because they are terrible, but because they are too small!


Jon Weinberg 07.05.20 at 9:44 pm

I hugely admire Harry, because he always seems to be about six steps ahead of me in thinking about student learning. At my school, fwiw (a US law school, for post-bachelors students), we’re doing our best to teach the first-year students in-person by splitting up their large classes into small sections that then meet socially distanced; nearly all of the upperclass offerings will be remote. I’m not teaching a first-year class next year for a bunch of reasons, so it’s remote teaching for me, and I’m doing my best to approach it intentionally. So I’ve no suggestions in response to the OP, I’m afraid, but thanks for keeping us in touch with your thoughts.


Derek Bowman 07.07.20 at 3:58 am


I’m glad you’re on the case, because I’m eager to see what you come up with. But I can’t tell from this post why you’re electing to do these classes in person, and the same applies to the Derek Bruff post you cite.

I get the conditional claim: If we’re going to make (some of) our classes socially distanced in-person hybrids we should make them the best they can be. But do we have any reason to think that these classes will provide better educational experiences than the 80% of classes you expect to be online?

That is, is there any educational (rather than financial or immigration-related) reason to think this kind of class will be as good as what we could achieve by focusing all of our attention online? The typical answer I’ve seen trades on an either an equivocation between ‘[traditional] in-person’ and ‘[distanced/masked/hybridized] in-person’ or fallacious ‘second best’ reasoning along the same lines.

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