44 Square Feet: A School-Reopening Detective Story

So how, exactly, had the district figured that 22 students couldn’t fit into a 770-square-foot room? Of course it was possible—maybe even very likely—that no geometry at all went into this decision. But when I went back to the district’s plan, skimming through the 140-page colossus of flowcharts, graphs, color coded tables, and details on everything from safety drills to budgetary concerns, I landed on the formula: In order to determine how many desks could fit into a classroom, the plan stated, each school in the district would measure its rooms’ dimensions, subtract out space for furniture, and then divide the remainder, as measured in square feet, by 44.

In other words, every student in my district would be allotted 44 square feet.

It turns out that this requirement, which bore no obvious relationship to 6-foot social distancing, isn’t limited to schools in the Hudson Valley. I did a little googling and began to see the number everywhere. School districts in North Carolina have a standard for reopening: 44 square feet for every student. School districts in New Jersey have a standard for reopening: 44 square feet for every student. And many school districts in New York, other than my own, have a standard for reopening: 44 square feet for every student.

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Where the heck did that number come from?

My district had designed its plan, and I knew it wasn’t likely to be changed. But still, I couldn’t help but dream that maybe, just maybe, I could find a better, saner answer to the spacing problem—one that would allow my children to avoid a rehash of the remote-learning disaster they and others endured last spring. For its own sake, too, the mystery of 44 was gnawing at me, like a Sudoku puzzle that I couldn’t quite complete. Either way, I knew I had to dig a little deeper.

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.

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.

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