COVID-19 Special Report

Impossible Physical Distancing: Tips and Tricks to Minimize Student Contact

At a recent public forum on school reopening, Ms Bernadette Hideki – a grade two teacher from Connecticut, USA remarked; “anyone who thinks we can keep kids from interacting with each other has either never been to school or is just plain kidding themselves”.

The veteran teacher was greeting with a rousing applause, yet many legislated school reopenings are predicated on precisely this notion: that students only interact with a reasonably small number of their peers. In Ontario, Canada for example, schools are expected to ensure that students interact with no more than 100 of their peers. That may seem feasible, until one appreciates that this means that all 100 students interact only with those students in this group. In other words, throughout all classes, all exchanges in hallways, all breaks and recesses, a student would interact only with one of the other 99 students in their bubbles, and of these students in turns also interacts only with those 99 as well.

It may seem simple enough to take measures like having lunch in classrooms or avoiding recess, but suppose what happens when students enter hallways between classes or after dismissal or before school. To echo the valiant Ms. Hideki, it seems not only unreasonable but almost fantastical to think that a relatively small number of faculty could be expected to prevent students from interacting with their peers, especially outside of hours of their control.

From a public health perspective, this construct of social bubbles has been an experiment to try an improve the efficiency of contract tracing. The idea was that if interactions are restricted to a small circle of social peers, then it would be possible to trace who a potential COVID cases may have transmitted the virus to.

The problems arose when many interpreted this apparent laxing of regulations to mean that they can simply go back to interacting with whomsoever they pleased, so long as they didn’t exceed the prescribed number of persons at any one time. Regrettably, this mentality is precisely how outbreaks can spread; one person transmitting an infection to many, which can go on to spread exponentially.

If schools are definitively starting to open, here are some potential strategies to minimize student contact:

  • Stagger school opening and dismissal times, keeping students likely to interact with each other (such as students in the same grades) within the same blocks of time. Though not definitive, this might minimize interactions outside of school, as well as a strategy to alleviate hallway congestion between classes.
  • Minimize transferring students between classes, and where possible have the teachers rotate instead. Although turning conventional wisdom on its head, this strategy might offer a chance to reduce the overall risk of student to student spread , and restrain the number of different people a student is exposed to.
  • Rearrange desks and chairs to maximize distances between students; the dreaded array of chairs and desks facing the front of the classroom may be worth bringing back for the time being.
  • Minimize any interaction where social distancing is a challenge; this includes instances where students may be lining up or waiting to gain access to a particular area.
  • Recruit students to assist with sanitizing activities, this includes identifying high traffic areas and regularly disinfecting these areas with either disinfectant wipes or sprays.
  • Appoint a hand sanitizing monitor , or similar role , in which one or several students ensure that every time a student enters and leave the class, they cleaned their hands and wear inappropriate face covering.
  • Ensure students are aware of proper hygiene and sanitation techniques. This includes how to properly spread sanitizer as well as good practices for wearing face coverings.
  • Find alternatives to traditional extracurriculars that may not be feasible in the current times . For example, substitute instrumental band practice with a viable creative or virtual alternative.
  • Finally, constantly prepare for an unexpected shutdown or return to virtual learning. This includes ensuring that students have the resources and access to the necessary electronic devices as well as ensuring lesson plans and future activities arranged with workable virtual alternatives.