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Driving Better Classroom Utilization Policies in an Era of Social Distancing

Social Distancing

As colleges and universities barrel toward a fall semester where many institutions are unsure how to open while still maintaining proper precautions in the face of COVID-19, leaders are discussing space utilization. “Discussing” might be papering over the reality: These are heated debates between professionals facing an unprecedented crisis. The truth is, campus leaders were already working in a pressure cooker. Before the pandemic, many colleges and universities were already confronting the stark reality that they had more space than they needed and likely could afford. Add to the potentially overbuilt campuses, a demographic environment where the pool of available freshman is slated to start to decline and continue for at least the next 10 years, you have a difficult situation that is very likely to get measurably worse before it gets better.

Now, thanks to COVID-19, many of these campuses have been operating in the red over the last semester and see the potential of their financial positions continue to deteriorate significantly as they look forward to fall 2020. As these campuses contemplate what approach they are going to take this fall – ranging from a fully remote session, a hybrid model or bringing students back in person – they must identify ways they can safely serve their students and faculty, using the space they already have, in their reopening plans.

Adding complexity and frustration to the conversation about space are government mandates around social distancing. Many institutions are feeling the pressure to create additional space to accommodate the requirement for six feet of separation, despite the inability to afford the space they have today. Before making a decision like adding new classrooms or even temporary buildings (which often become permanent buildings) institutions would benefit from taking a closer look at how well they are currently using their space before resorting to radical changes that could create long term costs.

The Apparent Choices: Scheduling Upheaval, Costly Renovations
Some preliminary estimates conclude that the typical classroom, if adjusted to accommodate social distancing, will retain 30% of its initial capacity at best. Imagine leaving only nine desks in a classroom intended for the instruction of 30 students; that’s how desperate the situations could be on campus. It gets worse. The same estimates predict larger auditorium spaces, where seats are typically closer together will have their capacities more harshly reduced. In one example, a 250-person lecture hall would accommodate only 25 people if the required six feet of separation is observed.  That’s a capacity loss of 90%.

At a minimum, social distancing mandates will radically reshuffle how classes are offered. If in-person classes are to be maintained, colleges and universities will have to offer three times the number of sections they currently offer on average. This scheduling upheaval would represent an incredible sea change for schools. A hybrid scheduling approach, where students attend a class in-person on one day and virtually on another, might be more manageable for schools, but such an arrangement will likely undermine the student experience as we have traditionally known it. Identifying areas on campus that could be converted to teaching spaces, even temporarily, could provide the needed room to safely educate students. But those renovations come at a cost and most campuses, cash-strapped as they are, may be unable to afford them.

These are the choices American colleges and universities are weighing. The options at best seem difficult to implement and at worst seem completely unrealistic. It would not be surprising if many schools reach the conclusion that an exclusively online education is the best option for the fall semester.

Beyond Estimates: Crucial Datapoints for the Classroom Utilization Debate
However, before leaping to that conclusion and buying a pallet of ring lights for professors holding classes on Zoom, it is worthwhile for institutions to develop an accurate picture of the current state of academic utilization to see if there are more reasonable paths forward. Our data suggests that the average classroom is only occupied 60% of the time, and when it is occupied, it is typically only two-thirds filled. For the average campus, both statistics are critically important data points in the debate over managing social distancing in the classroom.

What the classroom capacity estimates fail to account for is the fact that the seats schools may lose are empty anyway. It would not harm colleges and universities to remove these unused seats to ensure and enforce social distancing guidelines. Further, since classrooms are in use only 60% of the time, the capacity for increased sections exists for many institutions. The space they are searching for is already there.

This summer has seen institutions spend significant time and effort developing their reopening plans and in the coming weeks we will see them begin to execute on these plans. However, in the uncertain environment we find ourselves, it is highly likely that these plans will need to change and do so quickly. These might involve shifting fully in person classes to a hybrid model or changing the time of day sections are scheduled to reduce the number of people on campus at a given time. What is certain is that those institutions that have a detailed working model of their classroom utilization will be quicker to respond to a changing environment. Having information readily accessible to answer questions like, which classrooms have the technology to accommodate a hybrid model, or what blocks of time during the day do we have the greatest capacity to add sections, is the only way institutions can act decisively and quickly.

Improving Classroom Utilization for Today and Tomorrow
With proper data and an analytical framework, institutions can use the current mandate around social distancing in classrooms to drive decisions that both address the short-term issue, but also to tackle some of the longer-term “third rail” issues around classroom utilization. Colleges may opt to schedule classes only on certain days or not at certain times. Universities may choose to hold 20-person courses in a 40-seat room nearest the instructor’s office to reduce travel time to course sections. The options are more plentiful than it may seem. These are big, political changes that are much more likely to happen in our current environment and can persist once institutions get back to some amount of normalcy.

As is often true with decision-making in the heat of a crisis, it is easy to make a rash decision if you don’t already have data and a framework in place. But, if institutions are prepared, the decisions they make now can address the situation they find themselves in now and can move them towards their desired future state.

With over a decade of experience helping institutions through data-driven strategic plans, Peter Reeves is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the member services department as Vice President of Member Services at Gordian. His focus is on delivering Facilities Planning solutions across all of Gordian’s markets.