For many people, the onset of a new year brings with it thoughts of new beginnings—opportunities to take and goals still to be realized.
At the beginning of 2022, most of those long-term plans have had to take a back seat to the inescapable presence that has dominated society and especially the nation’s schools and universities for nearly two years—Covid-19.
Schools and universities are in the midst of a third school year disrupted if not derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. With the continuing repercussions from the virus still looming over education institutions, the major challenge facing educators and administrators is the same as it has been since March 2020—figuring out how to continue to provide a high-quality education to students while keeping them, as well as teachers and other employees, safe and protected from the virus.
In the long run, educators and administrators may emerge from the Covid-19 era with new and better ideas about designing, building and operating school facilities, but for now, the focus is on surviving the pandemic with minimal damage.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected Americans differently. For hundreds of thousands of people, it has cost them their lives; for some workers, it has meant choosing between personal health and safety and continued employment; for those skeptical of the effectiveness of vaccines and masks in preventing the spread of the disease, it’s treated as an inconvenience and an unwarranted encroachment on their personal freedom.
For education institutions, Covid-19, like many societal issues that find their way into classrooms and school board rooms, puts them in the middle of opposing and in some cases irreconcilable political factions.
School officials that mandate facemasks in their buildings or insist on students and employees to be vaccinated are often assailed by opponents—patrons as well as some elected officials—who reject those steps as unnecessary or oppressive.
Schools who opt not to mandate masks and vaccinations attract the ire of parents, teachers and other employees who believe the lack of safety protocols puts their health and that of their children at risk.
State of emergency
In the meantime, students have seen their schedules fluctuate from online-only instruction to a mix of in-person and remote classes to full-time in-person classes. As they work to maintain their academic performance while coping with the chaos of the Covid-19 era, experts worry about the social and emotional fallout of the last two years.
In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a statement declaring a national state of emergency in children’s mental health.
“We have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic,” the groups said.
The crisis “is inextricably tied to the stress brought on by Covid-19 and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and represents an acceleration of trends observed prior to 2020.... We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities.”
The fallout also affects the adults who supervise students on school campuses. A survey of K-12 school employees released in September 2021 by MissionSquare Research Institute found that 52% of them reported being burnt out or fatigued at school because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“They have significant concerns about how the challenges of learning during the pandemic have impacted their students,” the survey report said. “Many are working longer hours, having difficulty adjusting to changes in the nature of their jobs, and are worried about keeping their family safe from contracting Covid-19. They have faced negative financial impacts from the pandemic and are concerned about their retirement security.”
The K-12 school employees surveyed also indicated that they believe the risks they are taking during the pandemic are not on par with their compensation.
“Nearly four in ten reported that working during the pandemic has made them consider changing jobs,” the survey found.
In fact, school systems throughout the nation have reported shortages of teachers, bus drivers, and food service workers.
A survey released in January by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools concluded that teacher shortage has grown worse in the Covid era. The 2021 Illinois Educator Shortage Study found that 88% of school districts in the state say they are experiencing a teacher shortage, and 96% of the districts report a shortage of substitute teachers.
“A total of 412 courses in 19% of districts were canceled, and 385 courses in 15% of districts were converted to online instruction because of shortages,” the survey said. “Most pronounced shortages were with special education and school psychologists.”
About 93% of the superintendents who responded to the survey also believed the teacher shortages would remain a problem in 2022-23 and 2023-24.
Covid also has taken a toll on administrators who have been responsible for overseeing teachers and other staff on school campuses. A survey of school principals by the National Association of Secondary School Principals found that if schools conditions do not improve, there will be a mass exodus of principals from K-12 schools in the United States.
Among the findings:
- Job satisfaction is at an ultimate low with almost 4 out of 10 principals (38%) expecting to leave the profession in the next three years.
- 79% of principals report they have been working harder, 73% report working longer hours and 62% report having a harder time doing their job than ever before.
- More than one-third of principals report being threatened in response to the steps they have taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in their school.
- More than one-quarter (26%) report that the pandemic had a “great deal” of impact on their inclination to consider leaving their role as principal.
- Principals report that their three biggest challenges during the coronavirus outbreak include carrying out blended and distance learning (60%), providing mental health support to students (59%) and providing guidance and mental health support to teachers and staff (58%).
- 9 out of 10 are concerned about student wellness this school year; 49% reporting they are “extremely concerned.”
- Only 21% “strongly agree” that there are adequate student services personnel (such as nurses and counselors) to support students’ well-being in their building.
Lessons to learn
The changes forced upon many schools by the pandemic have raised the possibility of re-thinking the ways educational spaces are designed and built. The sudden need for flexible space, social distancing and remote or hybrid instruction methods caused some people to take another look at how space is allocated in schools.
“This increase in awareness hopefully will be the best long-lasting impact of Covid in that it can provide some meaningful change in the way schools are designed,” said Vaughn Dierks, partner at Wold Architects and Engineers in Minneapolis. “There is some significant change in terms of instruction that's often hard for people to understand if you don’t have students in the system and our assumptions are based on ‘this is what I did when I was in school.’”
Many of those changes are topics that educators and architects have discussed for years.
“We’ve always talked about collaborative learning environments, spaces beyond classrooms and how schools are organized—how we can design buildings to allow for a greater level of collaboration,” Dierks said. “What people have found over the last 20 months is when you take students out of...that lecture-based environment, we’re now going to have to approach things differently.”
In the short term, the pandemic has cause people to be more cognizant of the facility deficiencies that have made it difficult for some schools to provide safe and healthful learning environments.
“There is a greater awareness among people, who are saying ‘What are you going to do to make the school safer?’” Dierks said. “We’ve been saying for a long time that we need to upgrade the infrastructure in buildings. People say what can you do about the HVAC system in schools? That base level of the physical conditions of a building has always been around, but now we have people talking about it.”
The focus on upgrading HVAC systems has resulted in many school districts allocating a portion of their federal Covid relief funds to repair or replace their antiquated or inefficient heating and cooling systems.
The federal funds have given many school systems the wherewithal to address longstanding facility deficiencies, and architects like Dierks are in the position to persuade school officials to take into consider different modes of learning and how modern school design accommodates those ideas.
“We can say, ‘Are we really going to put it back together the way it was built 50 years ago or 60 years ago?’” Dierks said. “Let's talk about what's working well for students and what's not working well for students.”
In some cases, that may mean establishing space that is not a traditional classroom, but that provides students with greater flexibility.
“You need a certain amount of square foot for the numbers of students you have in in any building so that they can move around that they can do different things and that they can socialize,” Dierks said. “But maybe we don't need 50 classrooms in this high school. Maybe we need 30 classrooms and more space for students to do things independently or in small groups, or to work on one on one.”
The intersection of schools with health agencies and other governmental entities as they all played a part in the response to Covid-19 has made some of those institutions more amenable to cooperating in a more formal way.
“We're actually having more and more conversations these days about how do these entities overlap and where can we work together to provide the same types of services,” Dierks said. “We did a high school in Minnesota where the activity center was funded in part by the hospital in town. They said we have a rehabilitation need for our patients. We need to have walking tracks. We need to have some of these types of rooms. Can we combine our facilities and have this happen?”
Bringing about such cooperative arrangements is more likely to be successful when the groundwork is laid well in advance.
“If you can find commonalities in long-range planning and say, this county, this city, and this school district are all looking at something similar, and you can bring them to the table two or three years before a vote to find where that overlap is, that’s usually where we have found the most success as opposed to in the heat of the moment,” Dierks said.
The attention schools have received in their response to Covid may lead more people in the community to get more involved in the decisions school systems are making about improving their facilities.
“Maybe we don't need as many classrooms as we did,” Dierks said. “What we need is a different way for students to be able to learn in addition to classrooms. How do you make meaningful change to move forward that has more voices in it than simply architects and administrators? It has to be hand in hand with the community that's going to use this space... Everybody wants a better environment. They want the right thing for their kids and their communities.”