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Crowding and the Coronavirus: By the Numbers

From spaced-out desks to staggered schedules, district leaders are trying to identify ways to keep students at a safe distance as schools reopen with the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing. But overcrowded rooms in many schools could complicate efforts to protect the health of students and staff, as national and international data show.

Before the pandemic, more than half of teachers across 55 countries and education systems reported there were too many students in their classes. according to data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. In the United States, for example, more than 65 percent of 4th grade teachers and more than 58 percent of 8th grade math and science teachers considered their classes a little or a lot overcrowded.

"This is a critical challenge schools and teachers are facing in reopening," said Dirk Hastedt, executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which runs the TIMSS. While the data focuses on classroom-level crowding, Hastedt noted that school buildings themselves often were built to older standards, with narrower spaces that will make it harder to maintain social distancing while large groups of students move. In his native Germany, Hastedt said schools have staggered break periods and made hallways one-way to prevent students from passing in narrow corridors of older buildings.

Where Might Class Sizes Affect Social Distancing?

To look at the crowding problem another way, compare class sizes versus classroom sizes across U.S. states. Requirements for classroom sizes vary from state to state and the minimum square footage allotted per child has changed significantly over time, but no state allots sufficient classroom size for six-foot spacing around students and teachers in the average 21-student primary class or 25-student middle school class. 

In Georgia, for example, where schools are still closed but businesses have started to reopen, building guidelines call for classrooms to be at least 750 square feet in grades K-3, 660 in grades 4-8, and 600 in high school. School leaders will have to consider the health implications of how long and how many students sit and discuss in classrooms, traverse hallways to change classes, and go to the restrooms to wash their hands in spaces that were designed for comfortable social distance, not health-related distancing.

"As a general tendency countries seem to be splitting classes into two [to maintain safe distance], but there are different issues if it's a class of 15 or of 30," Hastedt said. "The more you need to chunk it into pieces, the more pressure you put onto teachers. And this is putting a lot of burden onto teachers. So I see that there are a lot of discussions happening about different priorities in different countries about what to prioritize for coming back first into schools."

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