What Will Back-to-School Look Like?

Movable plexiglass screens like these from Screenflex provide a safe barrier between school librarians and students. Other safeguards include the carpet design – its hashmarks remind people to social distance as they wait in line.
by Tina Manzer

Even though the target is still moving, furniture manufacturers, designers, educators, architectural firms and even real estate developers are looking ahead at ways to create a new normal for learning. While the majority of their recommendations are designed to help schools follow CDC guidelines, others are meant to maintain efficiencies or lower costs associated with the changes. Here’s a roundup of suggestions we’ve collected from a variety of sources. Their ideas are organized into categories that include De-densify, Furniture & Decor, and Office Space.


Until there is a COVID vaccine, students in classrooms must be 6 feet apart. To create that all-important social distancing, the average classroom can accommodate only 12 to 15 students at a time. Schools can either expand the physical space or teach fewer students at one time.

One scenario calls for adding trailers to school campuses, but concerns include the cost and availability of portable classrooms, and the cost of additional teachers.

Other, more practical solutions include decreasing the number of students in the building at any given time. There are a number of recommendations.

Hybrid approaches combine face-to-face instruction with online options. Students attend school in person two days a week and learn online three days a week. Half the students in each class attend on Monday and Wednesdays, and the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, everyone works from home while the building is deep cleaned.

Different instruction styles for different grade levels, like providing in-person instruction for elementary-school-aged children and social distancing options for higher grade levels.

Year-round school with alternating breaks.

Longer instructional days to allow for fewer students at one time in courses like band, choir and orchestra, and in recess and at lunch.

Furniture & Decor

Maybe there was method to the madness of our forebears. The traditional classroom layout they “invented” – rows of student desks all facing the front of the room – helps prevent the spread of disease, at least according to the current guidelines. Since safety has replaced collaboration as the top priority in classroom design, our thinking has had to change pretty quickly. Here are some of the safety solutions, furniture and décor-wise, that are being discussed in the news.

Plexiglass everywhere, to isolate and protect librarians, office and administrative staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others who serve throngs of students every day. Since its invention by British scientists in the 1930s, plexiglass has been favored in medical settings because it resists weathering and is not damaged by chemical cleaners, reports Fox Business. 

Since elementary schools reopened in the Netherlands on May 11, portable plexiglass screens have been used to protect teachers when students are coughing, reports Reuters. Plexiglass screens have also been placed between the desks of students in classrooms in Wuhan.

Plexiglass production has been scaled up by the material’s largest manufacturers to meet the demand. One of them, Perspex in the U.K., increased its acrylic sheet production
300 percent from February to March.

Modular and agile furniture with easy-to-move pieces can be separated for thorough cleaning and then put back together. Casters for mobility also facilitate easy washing of floors and walls.

Wood furniture has natural antibacterial properties to eliminate potential contaminants. Wood also dries quickly after washing, which also prevents bacteria growth,

Antimicrobial-treated chairs and tables are available from Kore, Ergos and other companies in the school furniture market.

Many performance fabrics have a moisture-repellent surface so liquids bead up for easy removal and cleaning. Some can be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water, and others can be sanitized with diluted bleach.

New carpet and floor designs remind people to social distance. Some incorporate lines spaced every 6 feet; others include circles to show people where to stand.

Portable hand-washing stations are lifesavers, literally. Options for classrooms are available from Monsam and Jonti-Craft.

Back to the office

Office workers need to be protected by the same safeguards as classroom children. Right now employers, like schools, are devising strategies to reduce density, re-orient work stations, and separate people from one another. Here are some of their solutions.

No more shared desks. “Hoteling” – the practice in which workers dynamically schedule their use of shared desks, cubicles and offices – is dead, pronounced the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Clean-desk policies will be enacted to ensure proper cleaning and sanitation of desks and workspaces. Nonessential items will be stored in cabinets and drawers.

Going into the office will be an opt-in proposition. Employees who want to go in will have to sign up for specific days and hours. When the number hits the designated capacity for the day, everyone else stays home.

New gadgets will be installed to prevent the spread of germs. They include antimicrobial door handles, voice activated lighting and doors, touchless destination pads in elevators, ultraviolet lights in ducts to kill germs, and high-quality air treatment systems that have been beefed up with high-efficiency particulate air filters.

Temperature checks will be mandated for all employees when they arrive.

Screens will be added in front, behind and beside people. “The higher, wider and more easily cleaned, the better,” recommends a white paper by office furniture giant Steelcase.

Employers are creating specialized rooms, say, for small-group conversations. Others are considering negative air-pressure rooms that help prevent airborne diseases from escaping and infecting other people.

“Innovation, productivity and growth can be reignited and accelerated with a workplace that is designed to balance diverse ways of working while supporting people’s wellbeing more than ever, and respond quickly and easily when faced with disruption,” suggested the Steelcase whitepaper. “The opportunity ahead is to reinvent a workplace that is inherently adaptable and able to change as needed, based on new conditions.”

The same goes for schools.


Here are the CDC guidelines for schools that were in
session as of May 20.

  • Minimize movement throughout the building and restrict mixing between groups.
  • Cancel all field trips.
  • Limit gatherings, events and extracurricular activities to those that can maintain proper distancing.
  • Restrict nonessential visitors and volunteers.
  • Place student desks 6-feet apart.
  • Close communal-use spaces like dining halls and playgrounds if possible. Otherwise, stagger their use and disinfect in between uses.
  • Students should eat individually-plated meals in the classroom.
  • Stagger arrival and drop times or locations.
  • Limit direct contact with parents.
  • Keep each student’s belongings separate from others’ and in
    individually labeled containers or cubbies.
  • Minimize the sharing of high-touch materials like art supplies, math manipulatives, science equipment etc. OR limit the use of them to one group at a time and disinfect in between.
  • Avoid sharing electronic devices, books, games and other
    learning aids.

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