Speaking of Education, Does Physical Distance Really Mean Social Distance?

Distancia física o distancia social
Distancia física o distancia social

One of the strategies to avoid the spread of the new coronavirus or getting the covid-19, has been keeping distance between ourselves and others. Nowadays, it seems that most people understand how important it is to do so. However, it seems that little is done to protect our emotional health, which, according to Amy Banks´(2020) research, shows that emotional welfare, together with physical health and well-being, depend on loving relationships and physical touch.

Thus, physical distancing is the term that should be used instead of social distancing, since the latter can be translated as seclusion. “Rather than sounding like you have to socially separate from your family and friends, ‘physical distancing’ simplifies the concept with the emphasis on keeping six feet away from others,” says Dr. Shahida Fareed, (2020) psychologist at Geisinger Grays Woods.

“We May Be Physically Distant, but We Need to Stay Socially Connected”

How does this affect classes with our students from school, university or any other institution where English lessons are given?

Let´s go back to basics: How were the lessons before this pandemic?

Students went to schools´ premises. Pupils had the chance to interact with their classmates before, during, and after classes. They even didn´t need to do so in the language they were learning, especially when they were not in the classroom. Students had the chance to talk about anything whether that was related to homework, lessons or not. This is something students miss nowadays; they miss a lot real life communication with their peers. (UNICEF,2020)

Then, we could see students´ faces and had the chance to perceive what was beyond words. We could sense if lessons were being totally welcomed by just looking at students´ facial expressions. Furthermore, students had the chance to approach us and by looking at our face and reaction they could sense if they could talk about any problem they were going through.

These experiences helped us build emotional bonds with our students, as well as gave them the chance to build theirs with their peers. As Reinhard Pekrun (2014) states, emotions are essential in the process of learning. I always say that emotions are like glue; they help stick what we are teaching more easily.

How are classes conducted nowadays?

Do not think about the burden it has been for all of us trying to cope with a load in a very short time. That was the first phase. In the present, we could say that we somehow have learnt to deal with it. Aren´t we just the best teachers ever? However, if we analyze the results we are obtaining, could we say that is the best we can do? If I am not wrong, I am sure you would say we can do even better, can we? So, what´s the plan?

What about the following?  

  1. Start recovering that bond we used to have with our students or make it stronger. Build ‘emotional closeness’ (Wasserman D., 2020)
  2. Create an atmosphere in which our objective is not only to share concepts but to share life experiences.


  1. Try by all means to establish eye contact with your students. This could be done by using the camera, at least at certain moments in class. If not possible, show, and have students share videos using WhatsApp. These videos will, at least, allow us to put faces to all the voices or written exchanges during synchronic sessions.
  2. Promote significant social interaction, such as group learning through collaborative student work. This could be done during class in the breakout rooms whenever possible or assign interactive group homework.
  3. Promote social interaction by defining achievement goals based on knowledge/competence as well as co-operative standards. At the beginning, you can guide students´ work by assigning different roles when working in groups. These roles could be those of organizer, monitor, secretary, spoke person, etc.
  4. From time to time, use games in class. This gives the chance to “forget” the pressure of class mode for some minutes and gives students a break to play, interact, and learn through exposure at the same time. You can make interactive power point games or make use of the so many existent virtual games by sharing your screen or assigning one game in the breakout rooms for each group.
  5. Assign movie time as homework: As a group, have students choose a film and they could be given a week to watch the film. What they would have to do is to choose the scene they like the most and, in a future class, have the chance to share their views and together decide which scene should be the group´s choice. They will also need to support their election as a team. It is very likely that students will try to get in contact with others during the week, thus we promote interaction out of and in class. I have adapted this idea from one of the many shared by the British Council.
  6. The break: Before this current situation, students used to have breaks and had the chance to interact with others in the cafeteria, halls, patios, etc., and they didn´t have to do so using the language they were learning. That was optional. So, what about giving students a break in which they can stay and open their cameras and just talk with their classmates about anything? You need to say that they can do so even in Spanish, for instance. I would suggest your leaving the room to give them some freedom and in that way also avoid their asking you whatever they need in Spanish. Depending on what the authorities of your workplace determine, you can allow students to ask whatever they need even in their native language. The objective is to promote social connection and doing so build a bond which may help us keep students motivated.
  7. Close your sessions with a wrap up by asking students what they have learnt that day. Ask them to write at least one idea in the chatbox. For example, new vocabulary, how to ask for food, important information related to the culture of the place where the language is learnt, etc. This helps them to become aware that they have given a step forward with your help. That creates a bond with them.
  8. Last but not least, let´s keep in contact among us. Join groups for teachers to share ideas and experiences. This work is better done when we are together. Use a variety of social media channels as much as you can. We are not alone.

Any other ideas to promote “emotional closeness’ with our students and among them?


Banks, Amy. (2020) Social vs. Physical Distancing: Why It Matters. The importance of social connection in the pandemic.  Retrieved from           https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wired-love/202004/social-vs-physical-distancing-why-it-matters Retrieved 14 Aug, 2020.

Danuta, Wasserman et al. Published as an eLetter in Science in response to an editorial by H. Holden Thorp in Science 2020; vol. 367 (6484), pp.1282-1282. Terms ‘physical distancing’ and ‘emotional closeness’ should be used and not ‘social distancing’ when defeating the Covid-19 pandemic. Retrieved from        https://www.europsy.net/app/uploads/2020/04/Terms-physical-distancing-and-emotional-closeness-should-be-used-and-not-social-distancing-when-defeating-the-Covid-19-pandemic.pdf. Retrieved 14 Aug. 2020.

Fareed, S.(2020) We May Be Physically Distant, but We Need to Stay Socially Connected. Retrieved from https://www.center-school.org/latest_news/we-may-be-physically-distant-but-we-need-to-stay-socially-connected/ Retrieved 14 Aug, 2020.

Pekrun, R. (2014) Emotions and Learning, Educational practices series. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= Retrieved 14 Aug, 2020.

UNICEF (2020). How COVID-19 Changed Lives – Voices of Children. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/georgia/stories/how-covid-19-changed-lives-voices-children


  1. I couldn’t agree more with this post. I would also add that it’s necessary to be attentive to those moments in which our students feel inspired enough (motivation) to use the target language in class to express their ideas and opinions in a spontaneous way -although it’s not at first sight related to the topic of the day. We could use this to our advantage and link it to the topic or task we are working at the moment (adaptability). The idea here is that the learner feels at the end of the class that he/she is really communicating in that language.


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