Physical Distancing through the Use of Furniture-July 15, 2020 Recap

Article | 10.07.2020

By Carl Baxmeyer, Manager, Planning, Wightman
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Wednesdays With Wightman Town Hall focused on getting students and teachers back to school safely by "Navigating What’s Next". We discussed actions to take to provide safe learning spaces as we enter the next phase of the COVID pandemic and return students to school.

George Kacan, Regional Director of Architecture and Education Sector Leader, facilitated the session and panel discussion. The panel included Mr. Gregg Cothern, Regional Education Manager for Steelcase Education, and Ms. Nikki Probst, Vice President of Business Relations for Custer, Inc. Dr. Thomas Langdon, Superintendent for Walkerville Schools and an educational consultant for Wightman, provided an educators perspective to the panel discussion.

Our featured guests shared their best practices for reconfiguring learning spaces from a "pre- to post-COVID" environment. Gregg Cothern presented the research work Steelcase has done in documenting actions to provide current COVID and post-COVID learning spaces.

Many of the pre-COVID classroom attributes, including reconfigurability, high density, and shared spaces, are now challenges to limiting physical interactions. Meeting the challenges preparing for the “Now, Near, and Far” should be the focus of classroom planning. “Now” is what we currently know and anticipate. A combination of in-person and remote learning is likely. In-person learning must be a common-sense approach that adheres to CDC and state guidelines. “Near” is the reconfiguration of education and common spaces based on scientific and data-driven knowledge.

“Far” is a shift in the paradigms of the past. School districts will need to be flexible and adapt to changes caused by health, economic, and climate disruptions.

To reconfigure learning spaces requires three key considerations:

Density: the number of students/people per square foot

Geometry: the physical arrangement of furniture and equipment

Division: by adding screens, panels, or barriers

Included in the presentation were reconfiguration examples of classrooms and shared spaces. Visit for this and additional information.

As the panelists and others discussed the presentation, several key points emerged:

  • Cost: Reconfiguration will have a price. The safety of students, faculty, and staff is foremost, so the cost will have to be borne. 
  • Availability: With the demand for physical separation products, particularly plastic screens exceeding supply, districts will have to rely on alternatives in the short-term. Using rolling whiteboards, foam-core sheets, or other more available materials such as cardboard provide short-term solutions.
  • Social-well being: Health comes first, but physical separation, especially remote learning, harms the social well being of children. The return of students to class as safely as possible needs to be a priority.

Our next meeting, on July 29th, will focus on Navigating the Michigan Safe Schools Roadmap. Nicki Britten, the Berrien County Health Officer and a member of Return to School Advisory Council, will provide insight into the Roadmap. It will be an opportunity for participants to interact with Director Britten as districts move towards the fall reopening.

To attend the next town hall, sign up here.

Here is a recording of the session.