Timetabling for Social Distancing in Schools

What is the best way to get schools open again? Schools do not know whether they will be open in three weeks or in three months, with social distancing for the foreseeable future. But how do students and staff keep a safe distance apart in cramped classrooms? What about social distancing in narrow corridors during class change overs? Or on the playground during break and lunch? There have been suggestions to cancel school buses to reduce physical contact. But how will students get to school if their parents cannot drop them off? It has also been proposed that students could eat lunch on the school field, which sounds great… until it rains.

In this blog post we will discuss some possible solutions to social distancing in schools, solutions that an ingenious new timetable can provide. We at TimeTabler have been partnered with iSAMS for many years, and our schools can export their final timetables from TimeTabler into iSAMS.

Reducing Class Sizes

Capping class sizes to a maximum of (say) fifteen students would allow for greater spacing in cramped classrooms. For the majority of schools, this would result in only 50% of students being present at school at any one time. This would inevitably mean that the school would have to be split into two groupings with separate classes: let’s call them population A and population B.

Who Goes Where? Splitting the School into Populations A and B

One possibility would be to split each Year group into two equals halves: populations A and B. In Years 7, 8 and 9 this would be relatively straightforward, and classes could be split to allow for friendship groups to remain in the same class (or perhaps separated to reduce the urge to break social distancing rules) and to split groups to reduce bullying. This method will prove far more complex to enact with Years 10 to 13, simply due to the wide range and combinations of options that students will have chosen. In practice, this will make splitting these Years into equal and consistent populations difficult.

A different approach could involve assigning all students in Years 7, 9 and 11 to population A and students in years 8, 10, 12 and 13 to population B. Or perhaps KS3 would make population A, whilst KS4 would make population B. Every class would still need to be halved, to allow for social distancing.

Something to consider when deciding who will be allocated to populations A and B is that, due to the cancellation of GCSE and A-Level exams, it is unlikely that Years 11 and 13 would return to most schools this academic year. This would free up their teachers to focus on Years 10 and 12 for the remainder of the summer term. Perhaps then Years 10 and 12 would return to school full time, split into two separate Teaching Groups with one half being taught by the previous Year 11 and 13 teachers.

Three Solutions to Separating Populations A and B

In each of these three solutions to separating A and B, the same TeachingGroup would be repeated for both populations, thus reducing contact hours for each but allowing for greater spacing in the classroom. Homework would be set for both A and B to be completed on the days that they are not in school, perhaps with some form of blended learning, providing online support or online classes. Each solution has its own merits and disadvantages.

1) Populations A and B would be in school only on alternate weeks. Population A would have a full, interrupted week at school, at the regular school times, whilst B worked from home. Then the populations would swap over, and A would spend their second week completing homework at home whilst population B was taught in school.

2) The school day would be split into two halves with population A in school every weekday morning and B in school every afternoon, teachers would repeat the same TeachingGroup every week for both A and B. Here students would have contact time with their teachers every week, as opposed to only every other week. However, this model may give an unfair advantage over B due to the way the school day is often set out, with mornings sometimes being longer than afternoons. This may be perceived by some parents and students as giving A precedent. It also raises the issue of whether all students would be able to get to school, since bus companies often operate on reduced timetables in the middle of the day, particularly in rural areas.

Which students would eat lunch at school and how would we keep the same levels of social distancing when the two populations change over in the afternoon? Perhaps the majority of students could have lunch at home, apart from a reduced number of students such as those eligible for free school meals.

3) Populations A and B would be taught in schools on alternative days. For example, A may be taught in school on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings, whereas B would be at school on Wednesday afternoons, Thursdays and Fridays. Initially, this combines the benefits of the other two timetables, but still shares some of the difficulties in the second timetable due to the split day on Wednesday.

There may not be a single approach that works well for all schools, but we have shown that a new timetable can provide creative solutions which could give students, staff and parents hope for the future of education.

To see a more detailed discussion of the ideas raised here, or if you use TimeTabler or Options in your school and would like to know how TimeTabler or Options can help you organise your timetable for this unusual situation, please see Keith and Chris Johnson’s article on timetabling for social distancing in schools.


Dara Roden has worked with schools across the UK and China, and is now the Content Designer at TimeTabler. TimeTabler is dedicated to supporting schools and colleges with all their timetabling software needs. Find out more by visiting their website: www.timetabler.com.