What Does “School” Look Like Now?

School districts across the United States (and around the world) have been impacted by the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak. School closures have affected 9 out of 10 children globally; we have never before experienced an educational disruption of this scale and duration. Students, teachers, administrators, and parents all look forward to schools reopening, sooner or later, begging the question:

What happens when we return to school?

COVID-19 will have both short- and long-term effects in our school districts worldwide. With students ranging from pre-kindergarten through high school seniors, every age group will encounter different challenges. Some students may be asymptomatic but contagious; others may experience severe symptoms from the virus. Even for those with mild cases, the issue of them bringing home the virus to loved ones poses a real threat.

In the short term, physical distancing protocols will impact both space needs and daily processes.  Will schools need to shift to A-Day and B-Day schedules, staggering students to lower classroom occupancy to safer levels? Will more schools switch to year-round schedules to accommodate more tracks with less students in the building simultaneously; will others may require three-day weekends for routine deep cleaning procedures?

Will transportation become an issue for districts with large numbers of school bus riders? What used to be a bus full of lively children sitting side-by-side may now be one child per seat to maintain physical distancing. Will there be staggered start times and class bells throughout the day to reduce crowding in buses and hallways? Will there be temperature checks for students, staff, and visitors as they arrive each day presenting logistical and privacy challenges as we acclimate to a temporary “new normal?”

These short-term adaptations will likely give way to long-term changes. How do we best accommodate public health needs in the school setting while creating safe, welcoming learning environments? Our long-term strategies will need to include changes to our facilities as well as our processes. How do we accommodate short-term space needs while planning for efficient space use in the future?

Our tool kit may include:

Layers of Learning

A significant silver lining of our extended foray into distance learning has been the opportunity to explore tools for blended learning. Facility with technology will be vital for most students entering the workforce, and educational tools which help students build technology skills also teach them to collaborate digitally. Virtual learning will continue to supplement face-to-face instruction and collaboration in the long term through synchronous learning (video conferencing), asynchronous learning (independent work using technology such as blackboard, seesaw, canvas, etc.), recorded videos for in-depth instruction in specific subjects, and more personalized learning tools.

New Technologies

Teachers, students, and families who have experienced an unexpected “crash course” in educational technology while participating in distance learning may increasingly rely on these tools in the future to streamline processes and create more inclusive learning environments. Integrated technology may become a regular part of most classroom subjects, increasing blended learning strategies and allowing for more individualized and flexible instruction. Technology may be fully integrated throughout the school building for ease of use by all, and parent-teacher conferences may shift to more video conferencing for convenience and flexibility. Educational games to enhance learning may be more widely implemented through dedicated gaming areas within the school. The opportunities to blend in-person learning with these new technologies will continue to evolve along with the development of new tools.

Enhanced cleaning protocols

An increased focus on cleanliness and hygiene will be a likely long-term effect of the COVID-19 crisis. Schools will need to increase cleaning frequency, particularly in common and core areas, with regular attention to high-touch surfaces. Equipment and storage spaces may need to increase to accommodate more supplies; likewise, janitorial staff may need to increase as well. Schools will need to provide supplies such as disinfectant wipes for use during the school day.

Tools to support health and hygiene

Touchless fixtures such as faucets and automatic light switches may become standard as well. Dedicated handwashing stations which are separate from restrooms will allow for ease of access; touchless wall-mounted hand sanitizer stations will provide a secondary option when handwashing is not feasible. Student-friendly graphics can remind students of the basics of good hygiene. For schools choosing to implement temperature screening, high-tech tools such as Infrared Fever Screening Systems (IFSS) can quickly detect elevated temperatures. If used in a lobby setting, these systems could potentially screen students and visitors as they enter.

New models for food service

Schools play a vital role in supporting nutrition and wellness for many students. To manage safe and efficient food service, school systems will need to monitor and manage the changing supply chain and prepare for temporary shortages and substitutions of some common items. Protocols for safe storage and preparation of food will need to be enforced, and cafeteria workers may need to undergo regular testing and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) for food preparation and serving. Physical barriers such as plexiglass screens may be required at serving and checkout points. Administrators will also need to plan for physical distancing in the cafeteria, including staggered schedules, shifting to box lunches for pick-up only, and closing the dining area temporarily as needed.

High tech/low tech systems for indoor air quality

Attention to indoor air quality is linked not only to better health, but also to better learning outcomes. Increased ventilation through operable windows and/or mechanical systems may help to minimize pathogens, allergens, and transmission risks. High performance filters may also be effective in capturing pathogens; MEP consultants will be instrumental in determining appropriate strategies to accommodate high performance filters to supplement standard filters when needed.

Careful consideration of materials and finishes

Antimicrobial materials and finishes which are common in healthcare environments may shift to routine use in other settings such as schools. Finishes which are easy to clean and durable enough to stand up to frequent disinfecting may become standard. Designers can specify materials that with antimicrobial coatings for high-touch areas; finishes which include silver ions, copper, and zinc have proven to have effective antimicrobial properties. Light switches, door handles, drawer pulls, and countertops which are frequently used in healthcare and food service applications may be useful for school environments as well. Where carpet is required, designers should specify easy-to-clean options. Terrazzo flooring is another durable flooring option which will withstand frequent cleaning.

Outdoor access for health and happiness

Outdoor learning spaces are beneficial for mental health, social development, and wellness. Schools may wish to increase secure outdoor learning spaces in the future; these spaces can also serve as strategic tools to increase fresh air and natural light in classroom areas.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of designing resilient buildings.  Schools are the heart of our communities; schools are where our kids learn and grow, where our communities gather, where we shelter safely during a natural disaster, and where the community will look to find resources in uncertain times. The paradigm shift taking place due to the COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching impacts on our educational systems. The pandemic has already highlighted the skills students need in this unpredictable world such as informed decision making, creative problem solving, and perhaps above all, adaptability and flexibility.

About Taylor

Taylor Morris serves as firmwide K-12 Marketing Coordinator, supporting K-12 teams across LS3P’s eight offices. As a dynamic marketing professional, Taylor brings an energetic spirit and enthusiasm to her work each day. She seamlessly tackles the wants and needs of clients and employees alike and juggles tasks including RFPs, groundbreakings, presentation, and photography. The world of architecture blends two of Taylor’s passions: creativity and people. She quickly learned firsthand how the built environment can have a positive effect on both individuals and communities on a very personal level, and thrives on telling that story to the world. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Business from the University of South Carolina and joined LS3P in 2017.