Some Emerson classroom layouts fall short of six-foot distancing


Hongyu Liu

Classroom 633 of the Walker Building.

By Patrick Pierce

The structure of some classrooms on Emerson’s main campus make six-foot social distancing nearly impossible—causing some students to lose faith in the quality of the college’s social distancing measures.

In the fall, the college instituted six-foot physical distancing policy in all classrooms, as part of an effort to promote social distancing. However, some students now say the layout of specific classroom spaces falls short of the required distance.

The seats in computer lab 633 in the Walker Building are not spaced six feet apart, with plexiglass dividers between seats instead. There also are not assigned or taped-off seats to mandate distancing, so students are free to sit wherever they wish—even directly next to each other.

Plexiglass barriers are helpful in blocking large airborne particles, but they do not prevent viral transmission, according to a study released by the University of Washington. They are not a replacement for social distancing, the study notes, and six feet of distance between each person is still necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“As we reviewed it over the summer with our facilities team as well as our consulting medical team from Tufts and epidemiologists—for the labs because [students] are forward facing towards the screen the plexiglass shields that are between each station do help create and mimic the distance needed for safe learning,” Assistant Vice President for Campus Life and  “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp said. 

“I don’t think they do a really good job enforcing it,” first-year journalism major Amanda Winters said. “It has to do a lot with professors not being used to teaching distances.” 

In other classrooms, the desks are six feet apart, but are moved during class meetings. Winters described one of her professors asking students to move themselves and their desks during class—something she wasn’t sure if they were allowed to do. 

“My professor was like, ‘Can we all go to this side of the room?’ And then we had to move chairs, and I definitely think you’re not supposed to move chairs,” Winters said. 

In addition to classroom layout adjustments, Emerson’s reopening plan implemented numerous safety policies such as capacity limits, frequent sanitation, and physical distancing to reduce spread of COVID-19.

Muurisepp said while classroom setups are sometimes shifted by faculty and students during class time, the facilities team resets every classroom at the end of each day. 

“Facilities is making sure they go around as they are disinfecting the spaces with the Clorox 360 machine [and are resetting] the classrooms to what the original setup was, which allows six feet of distance between students,” Muurisepp said.

If students see desks fewer than six feet apart, Murrisepp encouraged them to report the building, classroom number, and class time to the college. Reported classrooms will undergo extra disinfecting, desks will be reset to their original distance, and the faculty member will be notified of the violation of the college’s guidelines, according to Muurisepp.

First-year journalism major Jacob Ireland said implementing the six-feet guideline in every classroom was a logistical challenge. 

“The social distancing kind of works, for what it is,” he said. “It’s difficult to be able to separate a lot of students six feet. I’ve seen other schools attempting it, too. I really can’t complain with how Emerson is doing it.”

Ireland said the precautions students are taking—mask-wearing, sanitization, and frequent testing—allowed him to feel comfortable with irregular desk layouts.

Nevertheless, Ireland took issue with the plexiglass dividers present in many classrooms. He said he doubted their effectiveness, describing how students “move past” it to talk to each other—rendering it useless.

“It’s hard to talk with the plexiglass sometimes,” Winters said, echoing Ireland’s comments. “So we’ll go around.”