Teaching Behind Plexiglass? Colleges Wrestle With Details of Resuming In-Person Classes

May 22, 2020

As more than half of U.S. colleges plan to resume at least some online teaching in the fall, details are beginning to emerge about what classroom teaching might look like in a time of social distancing.

Perhaps the starkest image emerged from Purdue University. Its president, Mitch Daniels, told CNN that some professors will be lecturing from behind clear partitions.

“Those that will be in classrooms will be at what I’d say is an extra-protective distance, probably behind plexiglass and so forth,” he said. When the interviewer pressed Daniels on whether such a classroom barrier might actually be erected, the president responded: “We’re already putting it up.”

The notion drew plenty of questions from professors on social media, who asked whether it was worth it to gather for a lecture behind clear walls.

“Is anybody else starting to think that teaching online might be preferable to teaching masked or some of these other options? (In terms of effectiveness, not safety),” tweeted a law professor at Temple University.

“Teaching behind plexiglass reduces the dimensionality of the classroom,” tweeted Robin DeRosa, an associate professor of English at Plymouth State University. “The professor is flattened and distanced. Like they’re on a computer screen. They can still find ways to be engaging from behind their screen. Hey...that gives me an idea of how we could make this EVEN SAFER!”

Officials around the country are clearly trying to wrestle with both how, and when, to teach in person.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, president Michael Driscoll wrote a letter to the university community explaining that students would switch between attending lectures in a classroom and attending online. “A class is divided into teams of students. Each team would physically attend class on a specific day, in classrooms sanitized and set up to maintain social distancing,” he said. “On days when a team is not scheduled to be physically in the classroom, that team’s students would participate and interact with the class’s other teams via Zoom or similar technology.”

The goal, he said in a video message, “is to allow all of you to have that face-to-face experience with your professor, but also to keep you safe and distanced appropriately.”

At Daemen College, in upstate New York, president Gary A. Olson said that the institution is planning for some high-tech cleaning techniques to keep classrooms safe. Among the steps he outlined was “enhanced cleaning and sterilization of rooms and equipment, including the regular use of new electrostatic sanitizing equipment.”

Officials from the college were not available to answer questions about their plans on Thursday. But the technique of electrostatic sanitizing is designed to quickly and evenly disinfect a surface.

This week also saw national guidance on how colleges can safely resume classroom teaching.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control issued new guidance for colleges, recommending cloth face coverings for students, faculty and staff. “Face coverings should be worn as feasible and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult,” the document said. It stressed that the low-risk option is to continue online teaching, and it classified as “more risk” a classroom environment where students and professors are spaced at least six feet apart and “do not share objects.”

And this week, the American College Health Association issued its guidelines for college campuses.

The key points, said Sarah Van Orman, a professor chief health officer at the University of Southern California who served on the committee that devised the ACHA guidelines, are:

  • Keep people six feet apart
  • Have everyone wear face coverings
  • Clean surfaces frequently and carefully
  • Identify sick people and keep them out of classrooms and workplaces
  • Have a system to quarantine those who are sick on campus

“We have to view our universities as some of the most dense workplaces there are, compared to most places,” Van Orman said in an interview with EdSurge. “You really have to examine each setting, each set of activities [on campus], and reimagine it—to reengineer it” to keep things safe during the pandemic.

One key recommendation is that colleges make a remote option available for every class, so that those who feel particularly at risk from COVID-19 complications can continue learning even if they are uncomfortable coming to a physical classroom.

And she said that college communities need to brace for the fact that people on campus will catch the virus.

“There will be cases at every university that has in-person activities,” said Van Orman. “We need to make sure people understand that if they’re at higher risk of COVID-related exposure,” they can choose the remote option.


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