GREENSBORO — Nothing fuzzy or fluffy. Spaced-out student desks. Cafeterias turned into classrooms.
That is a glimpse of what Guilford County Schools administrators believe socially distanced education could look like in the school system’s classroom this year.
Top school-system officials held a series of media opportunities at Sternberger Elementary School in Greensboro on Tuesday morning to show how they are planning for the possibility of returning to school under “moderate” social distancing requirements.
Under a moderate social distancing scenario, requirements from the state are expected to include keeping students, staff members and others in the buildings 6 feet apart.
Sternberger, the officials said, is one of the school system’s older schools, which often have smaller classrooms than the newer buildings. Each classroom is different, and such features as built-in shelving make it harder to figure out from a floor plan what can fit.
School officials set up a couple of classrooms at Sternberger based on 6-foot spacing.
In the third-grade classroom they showed reporters Tuesday, school administrators were able to fit about 16 desks, each about 6 feet apart from “nose to nose,” as Angie Henry, the school system’s chief financial and operations officer put it. Most third grade classes have around 20 or 21 students, the later being the maximum per teacher K-3 class size, Henry said. So, without more teachers, there’s an obvious challenge for the school system to make this work.
Meanwhile, to fit those 16 socially distanced desks, plus a space for the teacher to instruct from the front of the class, they had to remove most of the furniture in the classroom. Just two classrooms’ worth of excess furniture made for a sizeable pile in the hallway outside.
Henry and Whitney Oakley, the school system’s chief financial officer, said finding storage space for all that furniture is another major challenge. Even if there were space in the classroom for the furniture, those additional “touch points” would need to be disinfected. State rules require schools to remove such items as beanbag chairs and pillows, they said. Typically, these would provide a cozy spot for students to read, but administrators said they cannot easily be disinfected and so no longer have a place in the classroom.
Extra space was left around the classroom’s air-conditioning unit, to avoid concentrations of air flowing over students’ desks, Henry said. So what looks on paper like a 770-square-foot classroom really has about 568 square feet available for desks, she said.
Sternberger’s combined gymnasium, cafeteria and auditorium was transformed into a classroom. Because students would eat in their classrooms, rather than cafeterias, for social distancing, it’s likely the school system would use such spaces as classrooms, Oakley and Henry said.
In an elementary school, they said, school officials would likely partition a space into multiple separate classrooms. Without partitions, the space held about 52 desks. With partitions to split it up and to allow for access to the kitchen, they predicted it could house two classrooms of about 20 students, so 40 desks total.
In addition to reporters, the school system has been inviting school board members and some principals to visit the classrooms to get a sense of how this could work and where the difficulties lie.
Oakley said their hope is that groups of principals who come to Sternberger will go back to their schools and set up their own spaces there, for teachers, staff members and other principals to check out.
Oakley said school administrators don’t anticipate having traditional open houses this school year, given the threat of COVID-19, but they are looking at the possibility at some point of allowing parents to make an appointments to check out classroom spaces and desk arrangements to get a better sense of it all.
“It really does help to see it and touch it and look at it,” she said.