COVID-19 changes the classroom

By Jenny Kincaid Boone


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The campus spaces where Hokies learn will look a little different this fall.

Classrooms will have fewer desks and chairs, situated 6 feet apart.

Students will wear masks and in some cases, attend class on a rotating basis.

Faculty will teach behind face shields.

COVID-19 is changing the look of classrooms. And with in-person and virtual classes set to begin Aug. 24 at Virginia Tech, the university is working to redesign all classrooms and lab spaces to adhere to public health and safety guidelines set by the Virginia Department of Health.

Take the newly configured room 244 in Wallace Hall. The desks, which are 18-inch by 60-inch tables with rolling legs, are situated 6 feet apart, rather than lined up in rows side-by-side. The desks form a honeycomb shape throughout the room.

Before COVID-19, the classroom held 20 desks with two chairs each. Now there are 12 desks, and each have only one chair.

The capacity of most Virginia Tech classrooms has been reduced by about 75 percent, with a cap at 49 students.

“It’s a pretty tremendous impact,” said Rick Sparks, university registrar, whose office is leading the layout and other changes to the approximately 196 general assignment classrooms across campus. Individual departments maintain other classrooms.

The registrar’s office has posted guidelines for classroom design on its website.


Earlier this week, Gary Costello, associate registrar for classroom scheduling and governance, held a long tape measure in the middle of each desk, marking a 6-foot distance to the neighboring desk and with three helpers, moving the furniture accordingly. The 6-foot distance is based on measuring students at a nose-to-nose level, Sparks said.

Teams from throughout campus, including Transportation Services and the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities, have helped with these room changes. Also, the Office of the University Building Official, Office of Equity and Accessibility, and Environmental Health & Safety have ensured that the new layouts are accessible and compliant with building code.

Before these classroom changes began, Virginia Tech gathered insight from other state universities and its own faculty on how to safely map out rooms.

In some classrooms, spots for desks are marked with taped X’s on the floor. There is tape in other areas of the rooms to indicate where furniture should be placed, if moved.

“When a student walks into the room, they don’t have to question ‘where do I sit?’” Sparks said.

All leftover furniture, which totals about 6,100 pieces, will be stored in an off-campus facility, he said. The university is exploring different storage locations.

While in class, faculty will wear face shields, and students are required to wear face coverings or masks indoors. Hand sanitizer stations will be mounted on walls outside of classrooms.

Classrooms will be cleaned overnight. Also, the university is looking into using a microbial cleaning solution on desks and other surfaces that kills bacteria for up to three months, said Anthony Watson, director of buildings and grounds for Virginia Tech.

Read more about how Virginia Tech is keeping campus clean.

Even so, “the key to making all of this work is wearing a mask,” Sparks said.

He urged students to understand that everyone in the classroom has a different health background and is dealing with COVID-19 in their own way, including faculty. Depending on the course, students may attend in-person on a rotating basis and may be asked to tune into some lectures virtually.

University laboratory spaces for teaching also are undergoing makeovers to follow physical distancing guidelines. Depending on the lab’s layout, physical shields will go up to separate areas where students work across from each other or side-by-side. Shared equipment also will be cleaned between uses. Lab guidelines are available on the university registrar’s website.

Some labs may have portions that are in-person and parts that are virtual, said Jill Sible, associate vice provost for undergraduate education. Sible is leading a university team that is working with faculty to redesign teaching lab spaces for physical distancing.

“We really believe we can offer very safe in-person labs if we take this more hybrid approach and put a lot of thought and care into the design aspects,” she said.

In fact, during a recent workshop that she led for faculty who are teaching labs this fall, several architects joined the group to share and sketch out design ideas for reconfiguring campus laboratories for safety guidelines. Faculty are submitting their lab plans to Sible’s team for review.

Additionally, some professors will be holding labs outdoors on campus or within walking distance of campus, rather than traveling with the students to different areas, Sible said.

“I feel truly grateful and humbled at the hard work that our faculty are putting into this,” she said. “If there’s one place where we would want to prioritize the in-person experience, it’s in labs.”


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