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Physical Classrooms Maybe Not Obsolete, But Definitely Unworkable Amidst Coronavirus

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wonders if physical classrooms are obsolete:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested today that remote learning could become a permanent part of life for New York students, even after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” Cuomo said during a press briefing in New York City. “Why? With all the technology you have?” [Kevin Tampone, “Is Going to School in Person Obsolete? Cuomo Wonders Why ‘Old Model’ Persists,”, 2020.05.05]

Cuomo is catching heck from numerous education advocates for that statement. Much of the criticism stems from Cuomo’s partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on technological alternatives to traditional teaching, but advocates are also contending that we cannot replace face-to-face teaching with remote learning:

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta released the following statement Tuesday regarding the governor’s comments about reimagining education in New York:

“NYSUT believes in the education of the whole child. Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process — which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings….”

Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the public education advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, released the following statement:

“…At present, where available, technology is serving an essential purpose in providing some educational access for children to safely learn during this crisis, but we cannot allow online education to supplant efforts to get them back into schools with teachers once the crisis passes.

“Hurricane Katrina spelled the end of public schools in New Orleans, which never reopened after the storm. It is essential that New York has a plan to reopen our schools when this health crisis is over. The pandemic has proven just how vital our public schools are to communities, as hubs that provide everything from meals to child care for essential workers.

…“We need to reimagine schools with smaller class sizes, where children will be able to thrive in a classroom environment that is safe and nurturing. We should imagine schools where there are school psychologists and school counselors — services that will be even more essential as children process trauma and disruption resulting from the pandemic. Research study after research study has shown that funding and teachers are predictors of student success. Research also shows that children spending excessive amounts of time on screens is harmful to their development.

“Up-to-date technology is an essential classroom tool, but it will never replace the face-to-face interactions and relationships with caring teachers that form the bedrock of a child’s education. We must be on guard to ensure that measures to keep children safe during the pandemic do not reduce the quality of education our children are entitled to” [Diane Rutherford, “Teachers Union, Education Advocates Voice Concerns as Cuomo Looks to ‘Reimagine’ Education,” WWNY-TV, 2020.05.05].

Research rigorously comparing online to face-to-face learning in K-12 is thin and difficult, but the data available indicate that online classes feel harder to students and produce lower learning outcomes than traditional face-to-face classes. Part of that disadvantage could come from crummy online courses. We may watch our kids right now struggling with mountains of online homework in our necessary coronavirus isolation, but we should not take online courses thrown together in a week by teachers who had planned all year to carry out these lessons in traditional classrooms as exemplars of remote learning. This spring’s universal online courses are life rafts and driftwood, the stuff we grab in an emergency to stay afloat. We can build yachts and the Queen Mary (we can also build the Titanic and drive it into an iceberg), but we need time and research and well-trained teachers to steer those new ships of learning with new technology and new methods. (Among other things, we’re going to need a lot more bandwidth to beam live holographs of teachers and students to each other….)

Knowing that we won’t have coronavirus under control for several months, we may have to build those robust online classrooms to get us through the coming school year. I’d much rather be in the classroom speaking directly to students than communicating with them by webcam and keyboard, but exposing dozens of kids at a time in an enclosed space to my teacher voice and their own boisterous exclamations (and when I taught French, boisterous exclamations were our primary objective) could be an exceptionally risky public health risk. Loud voices—think about the “teacher voice” we associate with our educators, that room-filling enunciation teachers use to command the room and direct attention—can emit more cootie-carrying particles than coughing:

Despite their small size, however, these micron-scale particles are sufficiently large to carry a variety of respiratory pathogens such as measles virus (50–500 nm)22, influenza virus (100 nm–1 µm)23, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (1–3 µm)24. Indeed, recent work by Yan et al. has confirmed that significant amounts of influenza viral RNA are present in small particles (<5 μm) emitted by influenza-infected individuals during natural breathing, without coughing or sneezing25. These small particles are potentially more infectious than larger sneeze- or cough-generated droplets for several reasons. First, smaller particles persist in the air for longer time periods before setting by gravity, thus increasing the probability of inhalation by susceptible individuals26. Second, smaller particles have a larger probability of penetrating further into the respiratory tract of a susceptible individual to initiate a lower respiratory tract infection4. Third, and perhaps most importantly, speech can release dramatically larger numbers of particles compared to coughing. Early work by Papineni and Rosenthal16 and Loudon and Roberts19 reported that speaking (as exemplified by counting aloud) releases about 2–10 times as many total particles as a single cough. Similarly, Loudon and Roberts investigated the role of singing in the spread of tuberculosis and showed that the percentage of airborne droplet nuclei generated by singing is 6 times more than that emitted during normal talking and approximately equivalent to that released by coughing27. More recent work using advanced particle characterization techniques have yielded similar results21,28,29,30. Chao et al.28 used an interferometric imaging technique to obtain the size distribution of particles larger than 2 μm and found that counting aloud from 1 to 100 releases at least 6 times as many particles as an individual cough. Likewise, Morawska and coworkers21,29 reported that counting aloud for 10 seconds followed by 10 seconds of breathing, repeated over two minutes, releases half as many particles as 30 seconds of continual coughing, which in turn releases half as many particles as saying “aah” for 30 seconds [Sima Asadi, Anthony S. Wexler, Christopher D. Cappa, Santiago Barreda, Nicole M. Bouvier & William D. Ristenpart, “Aerosol Emission and Superemission During Human Speech Increase with Voice Loudness,” Scientific Reports, 2019.02.19].

I’ve always liked to think that my teacher voice could infect students with a passion for learning. Now my teacher voice could infect the entire room with coronavirus.

We already have to rethink classrooms (and auditoria, and lunch rooms, and locker rooms, and buses…) to give all students at least six feet of breathing space. (Hmm… if we have to cut the number of students in every classroom by half, will Governor Noem be ready to float emergency aid to the schools to double their teaching staff? No price is too high to save children’s lives, right, Kristi?). But how will we make room in a traditional classroom for teachers and their necessarily strong voices? Will we put cashier shields in front of the teachers’ lecterns and require that they not move from those shielded spots? Will we create mic’d isolation booths where anyone presenting to the class must speak? Will we let everyone assemble at school but require that everyone whisper (call it A Pretty Quiet Place, with smaller monsters)?

Or will we have to admit that, for all the challenges online learning poses, conducting the 2020–2021 school year entirely online, or at least spending the summer creating all the online activities and acquiring and distributing all the necessary Internet infrastructure and tools necessary to move courses seamlessly online the moment the second wave comes, may be cheaper, easier, and safer than any reconfiguration we make make of our public physical learning spaces.

I’m not prepared to go full Cuomo and consign physical classrooms to the dustbin of history. I still think I can teach French more effectively and accountably in a room full of aspiring speakers than from behind a computer screen. But mingling with respiring speakers in any enclosed space (hey, principals! at least let your teachers take the kids outside!) for the next several months is likely irresponsible.


  1. Donald Pay 2020-05-07 08:32

    Rapid City Area Schools piloted an on-line learning project for a year back in 2000. We got a couple thousand dollars in grant money from the state for a self-selected group of high school students to engage in on-line education. We had an incredibly gifted teacher leading this largely independent study effort. The results were mixed the first year, and we weren’t able to secure more state money to follow on. Essentially, Janklow cut us off.

    For the highly motivated students in this age group, students could accelerated their learning and go beyond what a high school classroom would cover. A number of highly motivated students seemed to prefer this for certain advanced classes. However, we found many of these students missed the class discussion and teacher interaction that a typical classroom provides, and these were highly motivated juniors and seniors in high school. It would be much harder to keep younger students engaged.

    Granted, this was in the very beginning of providing education through the internet, and it has improved since then. But the need for human contact, particularly in children and adolescents, can’t be underestimated.

    From caveman days down to todays we learn in social settings. That’s the best. In the age of coronavirus we will have to settle, for a short time, hopefully, for a poor substitute.

  2. o 2020-05-07 10:05

    That motivated students learn in most any environment is almost axiomatic. That is not to say that engaging even our most gifted students is not a priority, but getting the most motivates student’s to learn is not the bane of any school’s existence I know of. The real issue is the other end. How can schools engage our young men and women who feel “sentenced” to school by mandatory attendance rules; how can schools make up for the deficits of the difficult home lives and environments some of our students experience; how can schools address the profound needs of our ever-growing learning disabled populations?

    Watertown also has endeavored into a customized learning school-within-a-school. Although it has opened options to some students (students self-select inclusion) it has magnified the reality of the lack of options and difficulties faced by many students.

    When the goal is truly public education for EVERY student, the answer always comes back to more student time with a highly-qualified, caring teacher. That’s expensive. Comparatively, computers are cheap.

    We have know the formula for successful education a long time: 1) highly-qualified motivated professional teachers, 2) challenging curriculum, 3) motivated students. Education is easy, just put those three things together.

  3. bearcreekbat 2020-05-07 10:52

    One of the more important goals of a public education is to assist young people in learning and experiencing how to interact in a positive manner with other youngsters. This alone seems to weigh heavily against the idea that advances in video and online technology can ever effectively replace public classrooms.

  4. Kal Lis 2020-05-07 11:14

    Cory nails the problem when he writes

    “Or will we have to admit that, for all the challenges online learning poses, conducting the 2020–2021 school year entirely online, or at least spending the summer creating all the online activities and acquiring and distributing all the necessary Internet infrastructure and tools necessary to move courses seamlessly online the moment the second wave comes, may be cheaper, easier, and safer than any reconfiguration we make make of our public physical learning spaces.”

    Most teachers and professors were given a week or less to put together online classes. They were rough drafts at best. Few knew whether their students had the tech at home to make Zoom or Google meeting work. Few knew if the college student, the high school student, and the middle school student in a home would have a class meeting scheduled at the same time.

    I hope but doubt the department of ed will take the lead in this planning for elementary and secondary schools. I read that the Regents are committed to campus classes. Whether they will have contingencies in place and plans for maintaining social distancing seems to be an open question.

    Nothing will be ideal for at least two years. If the economy craters, nothing will be ideal for a much longer time, so this summer will be an important opportunity to move beyond scattershot rough drafts.

  5. Donald Pay 2020-05-07 11:39

    Kal Lis: “Few knew whether their students had the tech at home to make Zoom or Google meeting work. Few knew if the college student, the high school student, and the middle school student in a home would have a class meeting scheduled at the same time.”

    Rapid City Area Schools estimated that a quarter of their students didn’t have adequate technology, either any up-to-date computers or adequate internet connection. If you don’t give students free access to on-line delivery of public education, you aren’t able to provide a uniform public education, thus violating the SD Constitution. That means computers and adequate internet connections to serve every student in the family. I expect there will be a lawsuit if this is anything beyond a stop-gap measure in an emergency.

  6. Chris S. 2020-05-07 12:23

    Before we let unaccountable billionaire Bill Gates warp our nation’s educational priorities any further, why don’t we listen to actual educators and people who study pedagogical issues professionally?

    A simple Google search will turn up plenty of articles from reputable sources like the LA Times and Forbes about the failures of various pet projects of Mr. Gates to meddle in our nation’s education system. Amassing obscene wealth doesn’t make a person an expert in every field, let alone a benevolent savior.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-05-07 12:34

    Oh no, I’m not advocating for Bill Gates or any corporate honcho to do it. I don’t want privatization of online ed any more than I want privatization of classroom ed.

    I’m just having a hard time seeing a path to steady, everyday face-to-face teaching in the next year. We need to spend this entire summer planning online backups for everything we are teaching. We can maybe afford to punt this chaotic, unexpected spring; it would be irresponsible not to plan for the coming school year to keep from losing any more instructional progress.

  8. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-05-07 12:36

    Donald, I would expect mixed results from any first year. It’s too bad Janklow didn’t give that early RC program a second and third year to develop better methods and grow.

  9. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-05-07 12:39

    More attention, more time, more teacher-student interaction, for every student—absolutely, O. That’s the only reliable way to improve every student’s performance. The less skilled or motivated a student, the more resources we must expend… and fancier computer alone won’t make education happen for students with greater needs.

    Online education is a necessary alternative amidst pandemic. That online education must still be designed by thoughtful, caring well-prepared educators who find ways to pour their heart and soul through the wires and airwaves and screens just as they do live in the classroom.

  10. o 2020-05-07 12:39

    Chris: “Before we let unaccountable billionaire Bill Gates warp our nation’s educational priorities any further, why don’t we listen to actual educators and people who study pedagogical issues professionally?”

    I know the answer to this one too: because teachers are not rich and Bill Gates is; therefore, he knows more (because rich is God’s way of expressing her favor).

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-05-07 12:44

    Kal Lis, I would generally hate being South Dakota’s Secretary of Education… but I would love to be Secretary of Education right now. Secretary Jones and the Department should drop everything (they don’t have standardized tests to score, so what else is there? ;-) and focus entirely on interviewing and observing teachers, learning what’s working and what’s not in our ad hoc online programs, and then spend the whole summer sharing that information with teachers and helping them and their districts locate resources to make fall online classes work better. Secretary Jones should put all those observations online, with a whole team from the Department dispatched to creating accessible content with lots of examples, explanations, demonstrations, complete online lessons, links to free tools, and a well-organized bibliography of research on good practices for online education. (It would look something like the blog I created for Presentation College’s Educational Technology office when I worked in that division, but much bigger and much better organized.

  12. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-05-07 12:46

    Oh yeah, and Secretary Jones should send teams with a couple BIT guys around the state to thoroughly map and inventory Internet access for all students, identify blank spots, and then scrounge up and deliver wi-hi hotspots and other gear to families and organizations to fill those gaps.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-05-07 12:46

    Secretary Jones should also commandeer the Governor’s video equipment and use it round the clock to produce educational materials.

  14. paladn 2020-05-07 19:34

    Donald Pay: Some excellent info; however, in speaking with teachers and administrators in RC, about 20% of students have not participated in the home schooling program. Excuses include no computer at home, “lost laptop”, can’t understand the process or , after sending personnel to the home, cannot find the student. If these 20% do not complete the assignments, should they be promoted? Should seniors who do not complete required work graduate? An interesting question for the RC Board of Ed. What is “fair” for the students who complete the work and those students who have graduated past and future?

  15. Debbo 2020-05-07 23:11

    One of the first things I learned as a teacher of then junior high age students was that if they knew I liked them, they would do anything for me. They behaved better, they studied harder, they engaged more, they learned best. Building that relationship with them was magical.

    I’ve had a few online meetings since COVID-19 and it’s so much more difficult when the only thing visible is the other person’s head, most of the time. Next fall teachers will have new students they don’t have a relationship with. That’s going to be really difficult. What about this?

    Split each class in half, A group and B group. For week 1, A group meets in the classroom. They can spread out so they have adequate spacing and meet their teacher face to face. That week B group meets online. Every week they switch. Or maybe the class needs to be divided into 3 groups to ensure necessary spacing. They rotate meeting in the classroom and when they’re not in the classroom their classes are online. The teacher videos her classroom presentations.

    I don’t know how that would work for older students who generally go from classroom to classroom, but it could work for elementary schools I think.

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