When my children’s school district finally released its reopening plan at the end of July, it left me both distraught and baffled. My son, aged 9, and my daughter, aged 11, would be going back to class, but only for two days per week.
I couldn’t understand the reasoning. I know the “hybrid education” model, where groups of students rotate on and off school grounds, is meant to help maintain proper social-distancing; with fewer kids in class, everyone has more room to stay apart. From a public health perspective, this logic is questionable at best, but the plan seemed especially inapt for where I live, in a suburb north of New York City. My children are privileged to be at schools that don’t suffer from the gross overcrowding of some of their inner city counterparts. So would my kids’ schools really need to cut back their populations by half each day to ensure that everyone could have their own 6 feet of space?
Just as a matter of geometry, it didn’t make much sense.
In pre-pandemic times, many of our district’s classrooms held up to about 22 students plus a teacher each, in roughly 770 square feet. That meant everyone already had about 33 square feet for themselves. Wasn’t that nearly enough to keep them separated by 6 feet? Desk-chair tilings and tessellations filled my mind. To meet the standard social-distancing requirements, it seemed like every student would either need a 6-foot square of space (with an area of 36 square feet); or else a circle with a 6-foot diameter (and an area of 28 square feet). Yet my school was thinning out the classes by 50 percent with its hybrid plan. Now each one would hold around 11 students every day, plus a teacher—each of whom would get a total of 64 square feet of space.
I quickly realized that my math was way off. First of all, it didn’t take account of needed space for the furniture that lines the classroom walls. But there’s another problem, too, that goes the other way. Let’s say you’re putting kids into a 6-foot grid: In that case, you don’t really need to leave 36 square feet of space for each desk, because some kids can be seated up against the walls, or even in the corners. A student who was sitting at a corner desk could be 6 feet away from any classmates, while only taking up a little more than 9 square feet!
So how, exactly, had the district figured that 22 students couldn’t fit into a 770-square-foot room? Of course it was possible—maybe even very likely—that no geometry at all went into this decision. But when I went back to the district’s plan, skimming through the 140-page colossus of flowcharts, graphs, color coded tables, and details on everything from safety drills to budgetary concerns, I landed on the formula: In order to determine how many desks could fit into a classroom, the plan stated, each school in the district would measure its rooms’ dimensions, subtract out space for furniture, and then divide the remainder, as measured in square feet, by 44.
In other words, every student in my district would be allotted 44 square feet.
It turns out that this requirement, which bore no obvious relationship to 6-foot social distancing, isn’t limited to schools in the Hudson Valley. I did a little googling and began to see the number everywhere. School districts in North Carolina have a standard for reopening: 44 square feet for every student. School districts in New Jersey have a standard for reopening: 44 square feet for every student. And many school districts in New York, other than my own, have a standard for reopening: 44 square feet for every student.
Where the heck did that number come from?
My district had designed its plan, and I knew it wasn’t likely to be changed. But still, I couldn’t help but dream that maybe, just maybe, I could find a better, saner answer to the spacing problem—one that would allow my children to avoid a rehash of the remote-learning disaster they and others endured last spring. For its own sake, too, the mystery of 44 was gnawing at me, like a Sudoku puzzle that I couldn’t quite complete. Either way, I knew I had to dig a little deeper.
The explanation given in my district’s reopening plan only made things more confusing. The choice of 44 square feet, it stated, would allow for “three feet of personal space and a 6-foot perimeter” around each child. OK, so that explained why 36 square feet was not enough. But how could those requirements be combined to get to 44? In a grid of 9-foot spacing squares, each student would have 81 square feet. In a tiling of 9-foot circles, they’d each need 64 square feet.
Eventually I connected with my school district’s administrators, and put the question to them directly. It turned out the 44-square-feet number had come from a consulting firm called Altaris, which the district had hired to help with reentry plans. When I reached out to Altaris, its CEO, John LaPlaca, responded that he’d found the number in a guide to social distancing in school published by Education Week.
I downloaded the file and took a look. A graphic at the bottom of the first page laid out a multi-step formula beside the question, “How many students can fit in a classroom?” First, measure the room dimensions, it said; then subtract the area taken up by furnishings and divide the remaining space by 44 square feet, so as to allow each student 3 feet of personal space and a 6-foot perimeter. Yes, this was certainly it! But it still made no sense. A diagram next to the formula showed students seated in a nine-foot grid, which again implied that each would get 81 square feet, not 44.
Just when I was about to contact Education Week for clarification, I noticed some tiny print across the bottom of the graphic—“SOURCE: National Council on School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies.” Ah, now I’d certainly reached the end of my journey. All I had to do was pull back the curtain.
Two days later I was on the phone with Mary Filardo, executive director of the NCSF, a nonprofit that supports K–12 school facilities officials in more than 25 states. I walked her through the mystery at hand—the school plan, the consultant, the Education Week guide, and, finally, the diagram credit pointing back to her. My knee was bouncing, fingers at the ready at my keyboard for transcription. At last, the enigma would be no more. But before I could even finish asking the question, she interrupted in a tone that was equal parts alarm, annoyance, and puzzlement. “That’s way off!” she cried. “No wonder you’re confused.”
Yes, she said, it’s true that NCSF had been working on this problem, of how a school might quickly calculate the space required for 6-foot social distancing. Yes, it’s true that NCSF had suggested, as a very crude, lower-bound approximation, that a school divide the floor space of its rooms by 44. But Filardo told me this was meant to be done using the total square footage of each room, before subtracting out the space for furniture. Moreover, this calculation had nothing to do with any proposed three feet of personal space for each student, and 6-foot perimeter. Those numbers were only mentioned in an NCSF webinar, Filardo said, as an “ideal spacing” scenario. Of course none of this added up.
After we hung up, I placed what seemed to be the final pin on my crazy wall: My school district had gotten the all-important number 44 from a consultant who’d found it in an Education Week article that had somehow bungled the advice from an educational nonprofit. But there was still another layer below. It wasn’t clear, from talking to Filardo, how the NCSF came up with 44 square feet as the lower-bound approximation. The depth of my rabbit hole was approaching the Earth’s mantle. I could feel the heat of magma burbling just beyond.
When I pressed for further details, Filardo put me in touch with David Sturtz, executive director of assessment services for Cooperative Strategies. The NCSF had brought on Sturtz to help develop Covid-19 guidance, so I wrote to him and asked if he could explain the mystery. “No problem,” he replied, “here’s how I came up with that original number.” Sturtz told me that he’d started with an average-sized classroom with 696 square feet of usable space, which would seem to correspond to one with dimensions of 29 x 24. Then he’d reserved a five-foot-wide strip at the front of the room for the teacher, leaving a 24 x 24 area for students, comprising 576 square feet. (He did not subtract any space for classroom furniture.) Finally, Sturtz said, he’d assigned each student a circle with a three-foot radius, to account for 6-foot social distancing. “In this room configuration,” he wrote, “you could fit 16 desks.” Now divide the room’s original area of 696 square feet by 16 and you end up with 43.5 square feet per desk, rounding up to 44. Voila?
I looked over this with my editor at WIRED, once again confused. Leave aside the teacher’s strip for a minute: If you divide the students’ area of 576 square feet by 16, you end up with 36 square feet per student. In other words, Sturtz hadn’t given every kid a circle with a three-foot radius—he’d given them each a 6-foot square. What’s more, his calculation only makes sense if you assume that every kid must be kept at least 3 feet away from the nearest wall, socially distanced from the cabinetry and bookshelves. If you redo the assessment without that restriction—such that all the kids remain spaced out in a grid, 6 feet apart from each other, but allowing some to be seated next to walls—then it’s possible to squeeze another four desks into the room. Now, with 20 students present, each one only needs an average of 35 square feet instead of 44.
Or what if you really did give each kid a radius of 3 feet for social distancing, as Sturtz suggested? In that case, by nestling those circles like cookies on a baking sheet, you could actually fit 23 desks into the allotted space, for an average of 30 square feet per student.
How much difference would this make? If this number had really been used to determine safe attendance levels at my children’s schools, it would have mattered quite a lot. Remember, many of our classrooms are about 770 square feet. If each student needs 44 square feet, then 16 of them could safely be inside at any given time, plus a teacher. But if that requirement had been figured out correctly, it might well have ended up one-third smaller, at just 30 square feet—in which case the same classrooms could, at least theoretically, hold 25 socially-distanced students every day, plus a teacher.
I say theoretically because sometimes the smartest people realize that calculations don’t always translate to the physical world.
When I reached out to facilities managers and administrators in a couple of the districts that included the 44-square-feet requirement in their reopening plans, they informed me that they hadn’t actually bothered with this math. Instead, they’d simply gone into classrooms with a tape measure, and tried to fit as many desks as possible, spaced 6 feet apart.
According to Filardo, that’s more like how it should be. In terms of numbers, the NCSF had not intended for every district to use the same 44-square-feet threshold, but rather its more carefully-designed Classroom Capacity Calculator tool, where you can plug in specific room dimensions and custom values for personal space, social distance, and the area taken up by doorways, teaching materials and so on. But even that is just a starting point, she said. “Our guidelines were only for distancing. We were solving a geometry problem. We did not take into account whether districts would be mandating masks or barriers or any number of other factors,” such as community infection rates. All of these variables matter. So does having proper ventilation, which may end up being more effective at slowing the spread of the disease than any classroom spacing protocol.
In other words, Filardo expected school administrators to think these issues through with care and nuance. Yet my expedition had shown me that this wasn’t all that likely to occur. Of course individual school districts have no idea how to operationalize a directive to “space desks six feet apart,” coupled with “or use of appropriate physical barriers,” and twenty other potentially conflicting pieces of advice. On top of all this, the school reopening guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that 6-foot spacing should only be put in place “if feasible”; while those from New York State agencies specify that 6-foot social distancing isn’t necessary if physical barriers are placed between students.
The problem is, governments at both the federal and state levels are giving two-dimensional guidance for a multi-dimensional problem, without any technical assistance for putting it into practice. This vacuum of leadership is how we ended up with a consultancy hired by a non-profit organization providing well-intended but somewhat confusing guidance which was, in turn, misinterpreted and misrepresented by a trade magazine, and cycled back via more consultants to unquestioning school districts in at least three states and maybe more.
The same vacuum of leadership also explains why policies keep changing in real time. Around the time that I finally emerged from my 44-square-feet rabbit hole, blinking in the light, I received a message from a district administrator. There’d been a change of plans. Around 1,700 desktop barriers had been ordered, one for each student. Once these and other partitions arrived, 6-foot-spacing would, per state guidelines, no longer be necessary. Both my kids, and all their peers, could attend school full time.
But a few days later my rejoice and relief was snuffed out once again. Three hours into a public Zoom meeting, after describing a full-time, in-person schooling plan in great detail, the superintendent reversed the reversal. That was all a hypothetical, she said. For the moment, the two-day hybrid schedule would still be in effect.