In this Q&A blog post, authors Pamela Evanshen, EdD and Janet Faulk, EdD respond to the most frequently asked questions educators have around COVID-19 safe — and welcoming — classroom design.
How does COVID-19 affect classroom design?
We wrote Room to Learn: Elementary Classrooms Designed for Interactive Explorations to highlight ways in which the physical classroom environment can support student engagement in learning. But, how does COVID-19 affect the main tenets of classroom design? At first glance, we thought that the restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 negated the principles of effective classroom design. But as we thought deeply about the domains of the physical classroom environment, we discovered that the pandemic actually highlights the value of the indicators we identify for classrooms to encourage engaged learning. For example, the foundational elements of classroom environments that lead children to feel safe and secure are even more important during these challenging times. One of the indicators discussed in the book, Meaningful Learning, considers the degree to which the classroom is hazard free, well-maintained, and clean. These characteristics are vital now and will continue to be when the pandemic has passed.
COVID-19 restrictions have also deeply affected the tenets of design associated with the Social Learning indicator shared in the book. Room arrangement, furniture selection, seating options, and work spaces are important elements that lead to engagement in learning. Effective classroom design includes a variety of learning spaces that encourage teacher-student and student-student interactions. Learning centers and stations provide children with active learning experiences and opportunities to engage with one another about topics of study. Due to the current social-distancing requirements, however, these elements of the effective physical classroom environment are severely restricted. The challenge during this time is meeting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines while still providing these important components for social learning.
How can teachers to create meaningful learning centers that follow CDC guidelines?
The locus of control in the classroom has changed. While we assert the need for students to independently choose, access, and be responsible for classroom materials, we recognize that teachers will need to take more control for determining and distributing materials because they must meet CDC guidelines for cleanliness. Nevertheless, children need to learn responsibility for keeping themselves safe and for caring for materials. One teacher we know is encouraging responsibility through her sanitation station. When students finish with community-use materials in the learning centers, they deliver them to a large, red, plastic tub labeled “To Be Cleaned.” This tub reminds students to stop and not use these materials. The teacher replenishes the centers with different materials until the dirty items are safely cleaned. Implementing this procedure gives students investment in the care of their room and greater understanding of their responsibility to the learning community.
Classroom centers are fixed locations where learning and exploration of specific topics take place; resources can be changed but the location does not. Learning stations, on the other hand, are mobile and can be created anywhere in the classroom when students need to gather materials to explore a specific topic. To meet CDC guidelines, learning centers and stations may be used a little differently than they have been in the past.
Learning stations rely on manipulatives. Although they are typically used for small-group or partner activities, they can also be adapted to individual use. Here are some suggestions to consider when creating and using learning stations.
- Some schools have a return-to-school implementation plan that allows children to work together. They assign children to static learning pods of two to four students. This may help to contain possible COVID-19 exposure to the specifically assigned pods and aids in contact tracing, if necessary.
- Children can work in learning stations in assigned pods or individually and can continue to use learning-station materials to reinforce concepts as usual; however, increase the number of stations so each learning pod (or individual student) has one. If your setting requires more restrictive social distancing, create individual learning stations for use in students’ personal work spaces.
- Incorporate procedures, such as use of hand sanitizer prior to and after work at learning stations.
- Design a schedule that allows for hands-on materials to be cleaned between groups. Mesh bags make it easy to wash and dry learning-station materials.
- Authentic manipulatives are essential in the primary grades. Look for quantities of readily available natural items that can be used for multiple purposes. Provide each child with a personal set of manipulatives that they can use for a variety of activities. For example, one student can have a container of seashells to use for sorting, counting, creating sets, making scientific drawings, and/or writing observations. Another student might have an individual packet of small river rocks to use for the same activities. Students can keep their containers until they can be safely exchanged with another student (after cleaning or several days of disuse).
- A learning station can be adapted for individuals or learning pods. For example, in a Word Work station, provide each student with packets of letter tiles appropriate to their stage of literacy development. Plastic letter tiles are essential if multiple students will be accessing them; this allows them to be cleaned regularly.
Classroom centers have an important role to play in offering students choice and addressing different modalities. This is especially important as we rely more and more on virtual learning experiences. Use of learning centers can lead to authentic work that can be assessed, displayed, and celebrated. We must keep in mind, however, that incorporating principles of cleanliness and sanitation is paramount.
- Provide hand sanitizer at each center, and include the use of hand sanitizer in the procedures posted at the center.
- Create a sanitation center where children can place items for cleaning after use. Schedule the students’ center time to provide opportunities for sanitation or change of materials.
- Provide each child with a learning-center kit that includes personal hand-grip tools appropriate for use in the centers. The materials in the kits may change based on each center and response products students create, or they may be all-inclusive, containing materials for use at all the classroom centers. Hand-grip tools that might be needed include rulers, watercolor sets, markers, colored pencils, glue sticks, and scissors. Disposable materials such as paper can be stored at the centers.
- Design the centers to make cleaning easier. For example, create more focused centers. Perhaps in the past you had a science center that displayed many different objects for students to explore. Consider paring down the items offered and requiring students to generate specific response products. If, in the past, you have provided multiple centers, try using one center to serve multiple purposes. For example, a center may be a science-exploration area on Monday where students plant grass seeds on a sponge. On Tuesday, the same center might be a literacy center where children use containers of letter tiles to generate words. They can capture their words on a piece of paper before they place the tiles they used at the sanitation center so they can be cleaned for future use.
- We can still use learning centers to offer children choices through materials. A math center, for example, might offer daily challenge questions such as, “Show six in two different ways.” The center might also have items available, such as small buttons, flat-sided gems, and geometric paper shapes, for making 3-D representations. Children can choose their materials and glue them on paper to create response products. There are many underlying process skills and math concepts inherent to this type of center.
- In settings that require more restrictive social distancing, you can still use learning centers to demonstrate concepts. For example, teach a science lesson from the learning center. Although this is not the optimum use of a learning center, authentic materials can be great visuals for children even though the experience itself is not exploratory. With effective use of questioning, children can become more engaged in the task: “Why do you think I am measuring this plant from the top of the pot?” Use a student in the center as a teaching assistant. Rotate this opportunity so each child can take on this role.
How can teachers design a classroom environment for interactive explorations?
We have found that COVID-19 has had a pervasive impact on room arrangement and social learning experiences. Some schools are not allowing students to cross the six-foot personal space recommendation at any time. We know that social distancing and physical barriers do create a safer environment, but these measures can potentially affect students’ engagement in learning and can interfere with designing interactive explorations. In the physical classroom, there is a rich exchange of ideas and deeper understanding because students have more contextual cues, such as body language and eye contact. In response to distance requirements, many teachers are taking materials, furniture, and other learning tools outdoors. They are creating learning stations and centers outside so students can more freely engage with one another as they explore and play.
What classroom elements—if any—haven’t been affected by COVID-19?
Our initial response to this question is that just about everything has been affected by COVID-19. As teachers, however, we find that whether we are planning for in-person learning experiences in the classroom or for virtual learning experiences, our procedures and agendas for learning, flexible seating options, and well-defined learning spaces are still critical for engaged learning.
- Children need to have a consistent flow of learning and procedures for using materials to reduce unnecessary movements in the classroom and support the efficient use of materials. In both virtual and physical classroom environments, post your expectations, procedures, and agenda where children can see them, and reference them frequently.
- Flexible, easily cleaned seating options are critical because children’s movement about the room is now more restricted. Offer seating such as stand-biased options, rocking seats, and therapy balls, to give students more freedom of movement. In the virtual classroom, flexible seating is especially important because students are seated for longer periods of time. Encourage families to offer flexible seating when possible; if that is not possible, then offer children frequent movement breaks.
- The need for well-defined learning spaces in the classroom has not changed. However, during COVID-19, we also need to visually define areas that students may use for individual and partner work. Acrylic dividers, such as those made of Plexiglas, on tables can separate individual work spaces and still allow for interaction in partner or group work. Designating specific areas of the classroom for “floor work” establishes boundaries that discourage children from drifting into others’ personal spaces.
How can teachers design virtual “classrooms” that support engaging experiences?
- Consider ways in which you can create a sense of community with your students. One idea is to post photos of your students and their families on a bulletin board where the children can see them. This might help your students feel more connected to you and to one another. Alternatively, you can rotate these pictures or use them for a “Student of the Day” activity.
- We hear students say that some techniques for virtual learning are too distracting or chaotic for them to engage in the content. Consider ways in which you can help children to focus. For example, make sure your lighting highlights you and the resources you use when presenting lessons. Plan ahead to have multiple authentic materials and learning tools available for quick access. Try not to make the children wait while you search for materials.
- We hear from parents that some of the standards are too broad for them to understand. They want to know, “What specifically does my child need to do on this assignment?” “What is my child supposed to learn on this assignment?” Small chunks are much more manageable for primary children and their parents. It might be helpful to provide PowerPoint presentations for parents to help them better understand the content and how to best help their children with learning the concepts. Consider including questions that parents can use to extend the learning and encourage children to think more deeply about what is being studied. Effective use of questioning takes on an even more important role for generating higher-level thinking. Ask children—and encourage parents to ask—“How do you know?” and “Why do you think that?” to prompt children to talk about their thought processes.
- Many schools are selecting virtual books for their students who are learning from home. It is helpful if parents have a series of questions about those books to help guide their children’s reading development. Specific questions also can help the children be successful with skills such as predicting, comparing, and summarizing book content.
- We can mitigate some of the effects of isolation in learning through creative use of tools. For example, some schools assign children to learning groups through Zoom’s breakout rooms. Working together, these groups discuss ideas, answer challenge questions, and solve problems. Virtual interactive learning games for partners and teams are also an option.
What are some easy, digestible tips for teachers who may feel overwhelmed by the concept of creating COVID-friendly classrooms?
- Less is more! With the requirements for social distancing, space is even more important. Get rid of any clutter. This is the year to eliminate things you are storing because you might need them at some point in the future. The truth is, you probably won’t.
- If you have space constraints (and most of us do!) consider strategies for hanging students’ materials. One teacher attached pegboard to her bulletin board. She used S hooks to hang individual bags of manipulatives for centers and stations.
- Add plants to your room. Plants help to oxygenate the air.
- Create procedures with your students for everything! Practice these procedures and positively reinforce compliance.
- Be calm and carry on safely! We will get through this.