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Non-traditional classroom furniture plays role in back-to-school discussion

Governor Inslee has said in recent weeks, including in his inaugural address, that his goal is to get kids safely back into classrooms across Washington. And while masks and hand sanitizer will certainly play a critical role in this, another big role could be played by classroom furniture.

Right now, school districts, architects, and other designers are working together to strategize how classrooms can be laid out to ensure maximum social distancing among students and teachers. And classroom furniture is a critical part of the discussion.

“As schools are looking at reopening, they are thinking about furniture as a key component,” said Stacy Crumbaker, an associate principal with Seattle’s Mahlum Architects who is working with school districts on this very issue. “They’re inventorying, ‘What do I have available, and how can I use it in a way that supports getting students in the classroom and doing it safely?'”

The furniture that’s being analyzed includes tables and chairs that can be easily moved by students and teachers throughout the day to fit social distancing needs. Crumbaker said that the traditional heavy, stiff desks and chairs that sit in straight lines — what she referred to as “soldiers in a row” — cannot be moved as efficiently.

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One classroom furniture company believes it can help with the effort. VS America’s furniture can be found throughout a number of local school districts, including Issaquah, Puyallup, Mercer Island, Federal Way, Mukilteo, Northshore, Central Kitsap, Edmonds, and Stanwood-Camano.

Ian Sawers, VS’s Pacific Northwest territory manager, said their furniture is light and flexible, allowing it to be moved or even to change its shape multiple times a day.

Tables and chairs can change height to be even with the ground or as high as a barstool. Other pieces create divided spaces for students to learn on their own, rather than in groups.

“You’ll see wheels on our furniture or shapes to make intuitive forms — little reading nooks, dividing the space so you can break the class apart,” Sawers described.

Crumbaker said that these new, nonconformist designs create a smaller “footprint” than large, stationary desks, allowing for more free space when walking around the room.

“The furniture is not all the same,” she said. “You can easily move it and rearrange it — change the room from a 10-person room to a six-person room to a 16-person room.”

VS developed its furniture before the pandemic to encourage kids to incorporate physical movement and comfort into their school day — which studies have shown help students learn better. Now, however, it is especially gaining significance, as schools plan how to keep kids separated when they head back to classrooms.

“This furniture can support learning in a COVID world in a safe way because it is so easy to move around and adapt,” Sawers said.

However, he noted that no type of furniture, even one that’s flexible and creates new distancing opportunities, can guarantee that a school is safe from COVID. Sawers said the decision to return to in-person learning is one each district will have to make based on its own needs, statistics, and capabilities.

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