Preparing the Physical Classroom for In-Person and Hybrid Learning

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By this point in late September, almost all higher education institutions have begun classes again, and the majority are exclusively online. Administrators have been constantly discussing practical steps and general strategies aimed at the possibility of holding in-person or hybrid classes (i.e., one live class with some students online over Zoom or similar software, and others physically in the classroom). Of those schools that have tried conducting in-person learning, some have had to scrap their plans and quickly switch to a strictly online model in the face of unanticipated obstacles. However, several universities have had success of a sort in these first weeks of the new semester. In this context, success for a given school or class can be seen as: (1) all students who want to attend a particular class are able to do so either online or in-person, and (2) if there are new COVID-19 cases, the practices implemented cause minimal disruption to the class.

For those administrators deep in the planning process, here are some suggestions based on real world examples that some universities have utilized in connection with using the physical classroom and other campus buildings for in-person or hybrid learning.

1. Preparing the classroom for in-person and hybrid learning:

  • Administrators and professors can set labeled seating arrangements ahead of the start of a class session to minimize student wandering or confusion. This may also be helpful if contact tracing later is needed.
  • The number of students who appear in person may be unknowable until the day of class. Overflow or spillover space/rooms/buildings should be reserved in case the number of students exceeds capacity. If additional buildings are required (e.g., through a short-term license with another local school whose students are not in-person and with excess space), considerations should include size, security, and audio-visual (AV) capability.
  • For hybrid classes, not every room may be equipped for Zoom or Microsoft Teams (or whichever camera-based platform the school uses) in terms of integrating audio. Microphones are not just needed for the professor, but for in-person students so that their online peers can hear in-class discussions without the professor repeating student comments in the classroom.
  • Additionally for hybrid classes, consider using mobile big screen televisions with built-in Zoom quality audio and video capabilities (such as Crestron units). These devices can be wheeled into overflow spaces to create another large scale audio and video experience for students. Students should consider bringing their own personal devices and headphones based on the size of overflow spaces and the number of these types of units.
  • Cleaning all surfaces, including microphones, should occur at a higher frequency, ideally immediately before and after each class.
  • Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer should be available for students in each classroom for when they return to their seat or leave the room.

2. Modifying the building:

  • HVAC units and systems may need to be modified to redirect or increase airflow throughout the building.
  • Certain elevators and stairwells can be used exclusively for going up or down. Elevators should have a single occupant or two person maximum capacity depending on size.
  • If water bottles are provided, facilities managers can disconnect all water fountains and vending machines.
  • Floor stickers at least six feet apart can be placed in normally popular gathering areas to provide guidance on where to stand.
  • Hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes (e.g., Clorox wipes) should be set up on every floor and at the door to every classroom.

3. Testing and screening for in-person students:

  • Before being permitted into the classroom, students should have (1) been tested, (2) received the results, and (3) uploaded the results onto the university’s online system for clearance by the school’s health center. Without a negative test result, the students will not be allowed into the building and would need to take the class online. Regular testing is considered essential, with some schools requiring it at least bi-weekly.
  • In addition to showing proof of clearance from the health center, students should be screened the day of class, before entering the building for (1) temperature, (2) symptoms, and (3) contact tracing.
  • Masks should be worn at all times and social distancing guidelines should be followed.

Last-minute, unexpected issues may derail even the most detailed and carefully designed plans over the next several semesters. Ultimately, contingency planning and being flexible will be key for all universities as we continue to grapple with the pandemic.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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