Peter Molick Photography
Daylighting and connections to the outdoors enhance the environment at The Collin Technical Center at Colllin College in Allen, Texas,

Cover Story: New design direction

March 14, 2022

In March 2020, nearly every school in the United States abruptly suspended in-person learning because the highly contagious Covid-19 created too great a health risk to carry on with regular operation of education facilities.

Two years later, the threats to health and safety stemming from Covid-19 continue to loom over the education system and the rest of society, and school facility planners have to determine how the experience of dealing with the pandemic should inform the design of learning spaces moving forward.

Many of the key design elements are still present in plans—health and safety, flexibility, sustainability, informal spaces—but some of those features have taken on added urgency because Covid has shown what may happen when those elements are lacking.

“Let’s not allow Covid to be just something that we got past, let’s allow it to be an opportunity,” said Mary Dickinson, Regional Sustainability Practice Leader at Perkins&Will in Dallas.

Covid is likely to deliver more insights about school facilities because the virus and the variants that have arisen are still affecting the decisions being made at schools and universities.

“If this had only lasted two months and people just had to go back to the way things were, we would all be living like 2019 immediately,” Vandana Nayak , Regional Education Practice Leader at Perkins&Will in Dallas. “I think we all have been trying to go back and live like 2019, but it's just not letting us.”

Air quality

Many of the school facility changes envisioned in the aftermath of Covid already are familiar, but the experience coping with the pandemic for two years has made those changes seem more necessary and valuable. For instance, school leaders have been well aware for years that the air quality inside their facilities can have a significant effect on students and staff. But that didn’t prevent thousands of schools across the nation from operating facilities with inadequate heating and cooling systems.

Conditions like inadequate ventilation that were considered a less than urgent maintenance problem became an immediate crisis when health experts determined that the potentially deadly Covid-19 virus was spread through airborne particles. The immediate changes schools made to clean and disinfect their facilities and upgrade their HVAC systems are likely to be given a higher priority as administrators assess their facility needs.

“There's really a heightened awareness of health, wellness, safety of the students—whether it is air changes, the cleaning protocols—I think they're here to stay,” said Nayak. “I don't think they're just going to go away anytime soon. That's kind of becoming a new standard.”

Because of Covid, schools are more likely to recognize that building elements like touchless fixtures in washrooms and more thorough cleaning regimens will deter the spread of not just Covid but other germs that cause more common Illnesses like the flu or the common cold.

“There could be a chance that we’re not going to keep having these big flu seasons because we can help schools learn from [Covid] in terms of controlling microbes and keeping kids healthy and staff healthy,” Dickinson said.

Outdoor spaces

After schools learned that to combat Covid, they had to establish social distancing and reduce the number of students in classrooms, administrators knew that had to be more flexible about their learning spaces. In the short term, that has led some schools to use cafeterias, gymnasiums and other non-classroom space for instruction. Folding walls, dividers, and movable chairs and desks enabled many schools to create areas for one-on-one or small group discussions while maintaining social distancing. The use of outdoor areas also eased the space crunch on many campuses, because it took students away from possible indoor air quality problems and it made it easier to carry out the necessary social distancing.

In the longer term, schools and universities may decide to incorporate more outdoor learning spaces in their campus designs.

“One of the things that I don't think will change out of Covid is this desire for all of the green space and this blur of the indoor versus outdoor environment,” Dickinson said. “Schools are looking to have the flexibility to be able to move their classes to the outdoors.”

Outdoor spaces may have large overhangs to shelter students who want to be outside even on days when the weather isn’t ideal. “Students can still go out and enjoy themselves even if it’s a little rainy or misty. The space will still be accessible.”

Technology also makes outdoor learning more feasible.

“Now that students have all the technology, they’re not just sequestered to the classroom,” Dickinson said. “They can take their iPads out there. And it’s not just the students. It’s the faculty that wants to get out there, too. It's a space where folks want to learn. It's a where they want a reprieve.”

Mental health

The escape to an outdoor space can help improve a student’s mind set, a critical concern for schools and universities who have seen their students and staff struggle mentally and emotionally because of the disruption brought about by Covid-19.

“Learning under a tree is as old as human race itself,” Nayak said. “I think that's been going on for a long time. But I think Covid has allowed us to understand is that for people’s mental health, the connection to outdoors is critical.”

Formal and informal outdoor spaces can lead to a more desirable atmosphere on a campus.

“Access to outdoors, access to daylight, access to fresh air—they are simple things,” Nayak said. “They don't really cost so much more, but what we have found is it just really improves your mental health, your ability to feel good about yourself. We see that as an important part of planning—where everyone feels like they belong on the campus. There's big push to make sure that the environments are more inclusive and more welcoming.

“We design spaces that are loud, noisy, and social, but also ones that are quite reflective, passive and a whole range in between,” Nayak said. “All of that because what we have found is that people really need that kind of support beyond just academic support. You can encourage behavior of inclusivity, behavior of being welcomed, behavior of wanting to be in a space.”

Sustainability

Pursuing sustainability and constructing environmentally friendly education facilities has been embraced at many schools and universities, but after seeing how facilities with poor air quality and inefficient energy use have made it more difficult to check the spread of Covid and other airborne germs, the desire for sustainable school facilities may gain momentum.

“There isn't a project we have worked on that where we haven't done a daylight analysis,” said Dickinson “We're looking at if the finishes are reflective enough, or can it be more bright and ethereal, as opposed to the warmness that you need. And we also are trying to make sure we're not running into situations with glare that would make the space uncomfortable.  Then, there’s this portion that we're doing from acoustic side, working on textures and trying to bring all of those in. But we're also thinking, OK, from a planning standpoint, where are those points of noise versus where we need concentration, because you have introverts and extroverts, folks that want to socialize and folks that really want to sit and think.”

Hybrid learning

The mixture of in-person and remote instruction during Covid had its pros and cons, but at the college level, many students want to have the option for either.

“We do see the generation that is coming into the college today has slightly different expectations,” Nayak said. “They still expect classes to occur in person, but they want to have a virtual ability at all times—kind of a hybrid. The silos of when you eat, when you work, when you play, when you socialize were blurring. Now it has blurred at a really high intensity. So when clients come talk to us, they are more interested in a hybrid model of all spaces. They're interested in a 24/7 offering of spaces. They are interested in spaces that can change their tone and function throughout the day.”

Universities that might have been isolated in the past from the surrounding community are more likely to responsive to such changes.

“Things have changed where they really would like to know the other business needs of the community,” Nayak says. “We used to have campuses with a central nucleus and everyone had to go to that nucleus to study. But now they are kind of branching out, and they're putting their small branches in the heart of the community, closer to where people work, where people live, where people raise their children. The reason for this change is that the model of your typical student has changed. It's no longer, “I will finish my 12 years of K-12, move to college, finish four years in a far-away university and then come to the workforce.

“People might be working for a while before they decide they want to go get a degree. So that kind of college for life requires a college to rethink beyond just being a nucleus and instead having tentacles back into the hearts of the community.”

One obstacle for facilities in a post-Covid world is that it may be difficult to adapt some of older buildings to function efficiently and meet the needs of a modern education institution.

“Universities, when they build buildings, they are built for hundreds of years,” Nayak says. “So a lot of buildings that we built back then are still operational today. One of the big challenges they have is adapting those buildings to the new, healthier, more collaborative, more social generation.”

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Sidebar:

Reconfiguring classrooms

Most students and teachers have returned to school campuses even as Covid-19 and its variants continue to affect the health of people around the globe.

To better protect students and staff from Covid, many schools have taken steps to alter their classrooms to place a greater emphasis on health and wellness.

A poll of teachers released in December 2021 by National Business Furniture detailed the changes that have occurred in classrooms in response to the pandemic.

  • 46% of teachers say they have increased space between seats
  • 35% have incorporated more flexible seating into their classrooms
  • 20% say they have limited the amount of classroom seating and 21% have limited the capacity in classrooms and meeting rooms.

Teachers are concerned with ensuring that students are provided with the most comfortable and flexible learning environment that they can provide.

Teachers surveyed said they believed the classroom of the future will be focused on wellness, collaboration, movement and flexibility

Some of the wellness strategies:

  • More emphasis on social-emotional learning and “calm down corners.”
  • Non-cloth or non-porous surfaces that are easy to clean with disinfecting cleaners.
  • Rooms arranged to provide more personal space for mental wellness.
  • Continued use of hand sanitizers and wipes.

Teachers also indicated that having flexible seating in classrooms, such as movable tables and chairs, standing desks and soft seating will enable students to collaborate more easily while providing movement and exercise.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy has been writing about education for American School & University since 1999. He also has reported on schools and other topics for The Chicago Tribune, The Kansas City Star, The Kansas City Times and City News Bureau of Chicago. He is a graduate of Michigan State University.

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