Thinking Outside the Box: Innovative Ways to Integrate Protective Paper Placemats into Lessons

New BHHS procedures include using protective paper placemats to cover student desks. Read on for some outside-of-the-box ideas for incorporating the placemat into lessons, promoting sustainability and COVID-19 safety in the process.

By Nora Lowe

Earlier this year, I was struck by the unignorable differences made to standard BHHS protocol. Each of these changes are implemented for protecting students, teachers, and families against COVID-19. The faculty worked tirelessly this past summer and continues to do so this year to keep our school open for as long as possible and to combat the spread of the virus.

Most striking to me was the implementation of protective paper placemats in the grade common areas (the cafeteria, Bobcat Hall, the library, the lecture hall, etc.) and classrooms. While COVID-19 safety is, and should be, the the administration’s priority and an issue on the forefront of their minds, I remembered thinking that sustainability and safety do not need to be two mutually exclusive subjects, so I contacted Assistant Principal Sautner and proposed some alternatives and suggestions for mediating the issue, as well as asking questions about the logistics and rationale behind the paper placemat protocol.

My primary concern was that the sheer volume of paper being used and disposed of was overwhelming: I used roughly one each period in a day (six in total). As of 2018. There were roughly 800 students ( in Byram Hills High School. After doing the arithmetic (2.5 days per week x 6 placemats per day x 800 students), this means we’re going through about 12,000 placemats per week, and that’s excluding the faculty who use them as well. Even though attendance levels are reduced significantly with many students opting to go remote, the mats are still being used on a daily basis.

Ms. Sautner was extremely accommodating and offered to meet with me to discuss the issue in person. She was open to hearing my ideas, and I am so grateful to be in a school district where the staff are eager and willing to hear student input. She introduced me to Ms. Bogren, the Advisor to the Byram Hills Sustainability Initiative/Club, who in turn connected me with environmentally conscious junior Deborah Varghese, and together we are now spearheading an initiative to mediate this issue.

So far, we have hung posters on the trash cans throughout the school reminding students to recycle their placemats as opposed to throwing them out. But, recently, we have brainstormed more out-of-the-box strategies both students and teachers can refer to in order to repurpose these placemats to promote an eco friendly approach to COVID-19 safety in the classroom.

Students: Take notes on your placemat instead of in a notebook. Then, at the end of class, take a picture of and upload your notes to Google Drive before disposing of the paper. This strategy has many benefits: you can (a) save notebook paper and (b) carry around less materials in your backpack, which is a win-win situation.

An illustrative example of this process.

Teachers: Incorporate the placemats into your lesson plan. Because they are so expansive, the placemats are perfect tools for brainstorming and content organization. For instance: T-charts, Venn diagrams, storyboards, KWL tables, and flowcharts are all perfect options for such a large piece of paper. Then, at the end of class, ask students to take a picture of and upload their notes to Google Drive before disposing of the paper. They can even email the pictures to you or submit them to Google Classroom and their work can be compiled and made into a notebook or collage that the whole class can benefit from.

An illustrative example of this process.

Everyone: Consider using to easily reformat web pages to require the least amount of paper possible before printing.

Developing creative ways to repurpose materials before disposing of them grants these objects a second life before being thrown away, which is an important way to conserve natural resources, economize, and better cope with this ongoing environmental crisis. 

Have an additional idea not mentioned above? Direct inquiries and suggestions to