• December 4, 2021

44 Square Feet: A School-Reopening Detective Story

The explanation given in my district’s reopening plan only made things more confusing. The choice of 44 square feet, it stated, would allow for “three feet of personal space and a 6-foot perimeter” around each child. OK, so that explained why 36 square feet was not enough. But how could those requirements be combined to get to 44? In a grid of 9-foot spacing squares, each student would have 81 square feet. In a tiling of 9-foot circles, they’d each need 64 square feet.

Eventually I connected with my school district’s administrators, and put the question to them directly. It turned out the 44-square-feet number had come from a consulting firm called Altaris, which the district had hired to help with reentry plans. When I reached out to Altaris, its CEO, John LaPlaca, responded that he’d found the number in a guide to social distancing in school published by Education Week.

I downloaded the file and took a look. A graphic at the bottom of the first page laid out a multi-step formula beside the question, “How many students can fit in a classroom?” First, measure the room dimensions, it said; then subtract the area taken up by furnishings and divide the remaining space by 44 square feet, so as to allow each student 3 feet of personal space and a 6-foot perimeter. Yes, this was certainly it! But it still made no sense. A diagram next to the formula showed students seated in a nine-foot grid, which again implied that each would get 81 square feet, not 44.

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Just when I was about to contact Education Week for clarification, I noticed some tiny print across the bottom of the graphic—“SOURCE: National Council on School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies.” Ah, now I’d certainly reached the end of my journey. All I had to do was pull back the curtain.

Two days later I was on the phone with Mary Filardo, executive director of the NCSF, a nonprofit that supports K–12 school facilities officials in more than 25 states. I walked her through the mystery at hand—the school plan, the consultant, the Education Week guide, and, finally, the diagram credit pointing back to her. My knee was bouncing, fingers at the ready at my keyboard for transcription. At last, the enigma would be no more. But before I could even finish asking the question, she interrupted in a tone that was equal parts alarm, annoyance, and puzzlement. “That’s way off!” she cried. “No wonder you’re confused.”

Yes, she said, it’s true that NCSF had been working on this problem, of how a school might quickly calculate the space required for 6-foot social distancing. Yes, it’s true that NCSF had suggested, as a very crude, lower-bound approximation, that a school divide the floor space of its rooms by 44. But Filardo told me this was meant to be done using the total square footage of each room, before subtracting out the space for furniture. Moreover, this calculation had nothing to do with any proposed three feet of personal space for each student, and 6-foot perimeter. Those numbers were only mentioned in an NCSF webinar, Filardo said, as an “ideal spacing” scenario. Of course none of this added up.

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