Can Social Distancing Drive Better Classroom Utilization Policies in Higher Ed?

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 classroom 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.  Now, thanks to COVID-19, their financial positions have deteriorated significantly and their ability to afford the space they have is in greater jeopardy.

Adding complexity and frustration to the conversation about space are government mandates around social distancing. Many institutions are considering returning to campus only if they can create six feet of separation between students, faculty and staff.

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 courses are offered. If in-person classes are to be maintained, on average, colleges and universities will have to offer three times the number of sections they currently offer. This scheduling upheaval would represent an incredible sea change for schools.

A hybrid scheduling approach, where students attend class in-person on one day and attend it 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 spaces on campus that could be converted to teaching spaces, even temporarily, could provide the needed space. 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 seem, at best, difficult to implement and, at worst, 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 Data Points for the Classroom Utilization Debate

However, before campus leaders leap to the conclusion that online classes are the only option and buy a pallet of ring lights for professors holding classes on Zoom, they may want to note that our data suggests the average classroom is occupied only 60% of the time, and when it is occupied, it is typically only two-thirds filled.  For the average campus, both of these statistics are critically important data points in the debate over managing social distancing in the classroom.

It is worthwhile for institutions to develop an accurate picture of the current state of classroom utilization to see if there are more reasonable paths forward.

What the classroom capacity estimates fail to account for is the fact that the seats schools may lose are empty anyway. That’s what our data shows. 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 course sections exists for many institutions. The space they are searching for is already there.

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 address their short-term needs and 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 reliable 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.

Peter Reeves

About Peter Reeves

Peter Reeves is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the member services department as Vice President of Member Services. His focus is on delivering Facilities Planning solutions across all of Gordian’s markets. Over the last 10 years, Peter has led consulting engagements with facilities and financial professionals within higher education and healthcare realms. In addition to working with clients directly, Peter has been responsible for managing regional teams providing consulting services. Peter earned his Bachelor of Arts in mathematics from Franklin and Marshall College.