COVID-19: Social distancing and a return to face-to-face teaching

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague, JB, about returning to face-to-face teaching in September. The focus of our discussion was how we can get children to follow social distancing measures.

Our conclusions lean towards a multiple strand approach to set standards of expected behaviour. We briefly looked at two other unrelated problems, where efforts have been made to stem people’s behaviour, before looking at practical approaches that could be implemented to ensure social distancing from September.

This British public information short film was created by the Central Office of Information in 1973. Its aim was to warn children of the dangers of playing in the vicinity of water. It did this by scaring them.

The film is dated by modern standards but still effective. The menacing tone and ominous voice-over, courtesy of Donald Pleasence, are there not to reason with children, but to ward them off from a specific behaviour.

This type of shock tactic seems to be reserved for when didactic and reasoned arguments are not enough. Smoking also comes to mind, especially with efforts made to lower smoking rates. There is a growing trend for many countries to add graphic imagery to cigarette packets on top of any written health warnings. The written message presents reasoned facts while any imagery is there to show the potential hazards and like the public information film, deter people from doing it.

Given the horrifying daily diet of COVID-19 related facts and figures, it could be quite easy to use similar tactics to ensure children are social distancing. However, the question needs to be asked, would it be appropriate to worry a child? Having been reprimanded for not following social distancing rules, it would be morally questionable for a child to leave the care of an institution confused and worried that their behaviour might have deleterious effects on their friends and family.

Anti-tobacco groups have successfully lobbied governments to not only change the law but shape the future by changing public perception on smoking and in turn, reinforce new cultural habits. When it comes to our own social distancing challenges, we have to acknowledge that rules and regulations are not enough. There also needs to be a drive to raise awareness, form new habits and look at how community sentiment can be used to bolster a change in behaviour.

Social distancing rules

Setting the standard

It is likely that most institutions will set out guidelines based on any legislation and/or government advice. Once there is clarity on how social distancing will be achieved, teachers and other staff need to be informed. This will require formal training sessions as well as time for teachers to get used to what will be expected of them.

Entry and exit

The need for social distancing requires systems to ensure learners enter and exit the premises in an orderly fashion. Supervision is key and the teacher plays an integral part by greeting learners as they arrive and instructing them to sit in a prearranged seating plan.

Lessons should end in a timely manner, which means packing up in advance of the end time. If a class overruns, it may impact on the time support staff have to safely guide students to the exit. Classrooms may need to be cleaned between lessons. Again, any delays in finishing may compromise the time cleaning staff have to ensure good hygiene.

Developing set routines, especially end of class routines, is something that might need to be prioritised when it comes to staff training:

Until teachers have developed effective end of class routines, support staff could help by giving teachers scheduled prompts that their lesson should be drawing to a close.

The paperless classroom

It is conceivable that limits will be applied to photocopying due to measures in place to restrict access to the teachers’ room and the photocopier therein, as well as the method in which teachers can safely pass copied materials to their learners during class time; last minute photocopying will certainly be unmanageable. To compensate for this, there should be a push towards paperless teaching and other initiatives to reduce the reliance on paper handouts, e.g. INSETT, sharing sessions, action research, having a paperless week, etc. There is research available and blog posts on paperless teaching. A lot of the ideas are tech focused which may not be a practical alternative in many classroom settings. Nevertheless, there are ideas worth reading which can give teachers a better understanding of what is involved:

If photocopying is essential, copies may need to be placed on each student’s desks in advance of the lesson; sharing copies would likely contravene the social distancing measures in place. Laminating allows photocopiable resources to be cleaned and reused with other class groups.


The communicative language classroom rarely advocates a seating arrangement made of chairs, separated and placed in straight rows facing towards the teacher. However, there is no other formation that ensures social distancing in the current climate. Until measures are relaxed, horseshoes, cabaret tables and other formations should be avoided.

Face covering

All staff and students should wear a face covering over their mouth and nose. There is evidence to suggest that wearing face cloth coverings over the nose and mouth can reduce viral transmissions. It should be every student’s responsibility to bring their own, however, a supply of disposable mask should be made available for anyone who has arrived unequipped.

Exceptions from wearing a standard face covering can be considered but would need to meet threshold requirements outlined by the institution. Any decision should not excuse staff and students from having to wear a face covering; alternative suggestions should be made which still provide a protective barrier.

Awareness raising

If we are asking our learners to change their behaviour, we should be exploring the reasons and other thematically appropriate ideas to help shape perceptions. This could be in the form of video clips, games, stories, debates, collaborative tasks- either as full lessons or as bite-sized chunks. Anecdotal stories are probably useful as long as there is an emotional detachment, an understanding of the problem faced, and an exploration of what can be learnt. Here are a few examples where parallels could be drawn to COVID-19:

  1. Americapox: The missing plague. In April, I created a lesson about viral diseases, with a specific focus on why the indigenous population of the Americas was decimated after the arrival of the first Europeans in 1492.
  2. Legionnaires’ disease. In 1976, the American Legion held its annual convention. Shortly after the event 182 people became sick and 29 died. When investigated, the legionella bacterium was identified and found to be breeding in the air conditioning system.
  3. Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary, was an Irish-born cook and an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. She migrated to the United States of America at the age of 15 and worked as a cook for affluent families in New York. It is believed that she infected 53 people with the disease eventually resulting in her being forcibly quarantined by the authorities. She died after nearly 30 years in isolation in 1938.
  4. Witness History. Witness History podcasts from the BBC World Service are an excellent source of information. Typically around 10 minutes in length, there are thousands of stories centred on a given theme. Here are a few examples that explore viral diseases:

It is worth pointing out that even a rudimentary search for more information about any of these viruses is likely to present the bleak reality of what happens to the human body. As previously mentioned, we should avoid descriptions and imagery which is unpalatable and distressing. Please tread carefully.

Forming habits

Wearing a face covering, maintaining at a prescribed distance, hand hygiene and following the rules when it comes to entry and exit are not normalised behaviours. Staff need to lead by example, reminding students when their behaviour does not comply with the given expectations. As mentioned at the start of this blog post, the danger is with the message being too forceful, especially when there is a need to remind certain individuals on a regular basis. Maintaining an emotionally detachment is essential as is resisting the temptation to take any communication to the nth degree which could leave a child worried.

Community sentiment

Getting children to follow the guidelines, even when staff are not around, requires buy-in. We can encourage children to follow the rules, lead by example, raise awareness, but the most important strand is how peers can influence the behaviour of others.

The term influencer, although nothing new, has become ubiquitous over the last few years. It refers to those people, active in social media circles, who can reach out and influence the behaviour of others. The power of this force cannot be underestimated. It is, however, pointless citing examples of those people who could encourage children to be more responsible when it comes to social distancing and hand hygiene, etc. The status of influencer is by its very nature ephemeral. Who your learners are willing to listen to can only be garnered by asking them i.e. who they follow on Instagram or YouTube, etc. A lot of the arguments may focus on acts of altruism, i.e. doing it not for yourself but for the greater community, especially those who are most vulnerable. This is better understood by teenagers but with the correct guidance, the message will not be lost on even young primary children.


Social distancing is a reality. Through dialogue, JB and I concluded that a multiple strand approach may achieve the desired results. These strands are:

  1. Understanding legal and institutional rules on what social distancing looks like.
  2. Engaging learners in awareness raising activities.
  3. Staff leading by example to help new habits to be formed.
  4. Encouraging community sentiment to encourage buy-in.

This may require teachers and support staff to attend training sessions on:

  1. How social distancing will be applied in their context.
  2. Developing routines to ensure classes finish on time.
  3. How to go paperless in the classroom.
  4. Introducing age appropriate awareness raising activities with the aim of students drawing parallels with the current pandemic.
  5. Exploiting opinions from social media to influence behaviour.

Much of our discussion was opinion-led, based on assumptions derived from our experience of working in the classroom. There is more work to be done on this matter in the lead up to the start of the new term, mainly testing our assumptions and seeing how they fare when they interact with the realities of working in the new normal.


  1. […] In July last year, I had a work focussed discussion with my colleague JB about returning to face-to-face teaching and what we needed to do, not just about the physical layout of the classroom, but also what was required in terms of buy-in from staff and students to ensure everyone’s safety. If you are interested in reading more about what we discussed, you can find it here: COVID-19: Social distancing and a return to face-to-face teaching. […]


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