Reopening Schools

Here’s What Designers and Architects Anticipate Schools Will Look Like in the Fall and After COVID-19

With the school year ending soon, schools across the country are looking ahead to the fall. The CDC recently released a one-page checklist for administrators to consider when reopening schools that include screening students and staff upon their arrival, increasing cleaning and disinfecting throughout facilities, social distancing, promoting regular hand washing and employees wearing face coverings.

These guidelines, along with input from state and local health officials, will impact the learning environment moving forward. We asked designers and architects from across the country what they anticipate classrooms will look like in the fall if they were to reopen, how the coronavirus will impact school design in the long-term, and suggestions on design concepts schools can implement right away to help with social distancing in facilities. Their answers offer insight to available design options and possibilities that can help school leaders plan and make the best decisions for their students and staff.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What changes do you anticipate schools making in terms of classroom design in the fall?

“Within classrooms, there may be a need to create physical distance by making operational decisions such as staggering the number of students within the physical space. Perhaps by deploying remote learning tools and strategies, students can join the classroom instruction from another location within the school building.” — James E. LaPosta Jr., FAIA, LEED AP, Principal, Chief Architectural Officer at JCJ Architecture

“Because schools don’t have the time or the funding to build additional classrooms or make the ones they have bigger, they are left with options that strategically alter how existing space is being utilized. For example, schools could use colored tape to mark circulation patterns and six-foot queueing distances on the floor (as we’re now seeing in grocery stores) around offices, lunchrooms and other locations. Other strategies may require enacting changes in ‘social design,’ such as dividing the students into groups on a rotating schedule of in-person and distance/online learning.
As for classrooms — often already challenged with overcrowding — schools may need to make tough choices. In classrooms where there is a support area, temporarily removing the support area furnishings may allow desks to be sufficiently separated. Alternatively, larger classes could be moved into the gymnasium or the cafeteria, or even outdoors should weather permit.” — Julia McFadden, AIA, associate principal and K-12 sector leader for Svigals + Partners, New Haven, CT

“As students return to K-12 classrooms in the fall they will be greeted with the next normal – a classroom hyper-focused on hygiene, social-distancing, and enhanced air filtration.  Most, if not all of these next normal will become routine but will they take away from the learning experience, after all they are bolt-on measures born from reaction rather than proactive design thinking.  Billions will be spent by schools all over the world to react in this way and it will not improve the learning environment for our children.  After all we are social creatures and we learn by doing in an interactive, socially engaged environment.” — Jason Boyer, AIA, LEED AP, Principal at Studio Ma, Phoenix, AZ.

“The Fall (of 2020) is way too early to anticipate meaningful, long-term, changes of any kind, in life, or in anything at all — as planning, design and building take significant time; months, years. Sure, Fall 2020 will be a different experience for the class of 2024 — and maybe the classes of 2025, 2026 and 2027.

But will it stay that way? There is no telling.  So, in what ways might it change? This remains to be seen.

The shift in thinking the COVID19 crisis will precipitate will likely take five years or more to manifest itself in measurable ways — certainly that long in new buildings; most likely more time than that.” — John Kirk, AIA, Partner, Cooper Robertson

“Schools will likely step up the level of monitoring of each individual student’s health with daily (or more frequent) symptom checks while promoting hygiene in the daily routine. The latter will probably include handwashing stations at building and classroom entrances coupled with increased cleaning and sanitizing protocols for students, faculty and staff.” — Mark A. Sullivan, AIA, LEED AP, partner with JZA+D

“One option is to limit movement of students. Rather than students moving from classroom to classroom, they would instead spend the majority of the day in a specific classroom while educators transition within the learning environments to deliver specialized instruction. In addition, educators could remove books, games, puzzles, and other communal items that are shared among classmates to reduce the risk of transfer. Removing these items that typically span the outer walls also provides more space within the classroom to support social distancing.

Another option is to design a new schedule for the classroom. The schedule would allow cohorts of students to be inside the classroom two or three days a week, while learning from home the remainder of the week. This option would limit the number of individuals inside a school to better support local and state guidelines.” — Jim French, FAIA, DLR Group Senior Principal, Global K-12 Education Studio Leader

“As the CDC is recommending a six-foot distance between individuals, classrooms will have to adapt to allow for social distancing. Most K-12 classrooms are taught in groups of about 25 students. In classrooms that are larger and equipped with individual desks for students, it will likely be a small adjustment such as spacing the desks further apart that can help the schools achieve the distancing requirements easily. However, in classrooms with shared tables or a smaller footprint, it could result in greatly reduced capacity to provide the necessary space to ensure safety.” — Vandana Nayak, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Perkins and Will, Dallas, TX

“There will be attempts to create some separation between students that may look somewhat similar to images we have seen from Taiwan, with desks spaced apart and low-cost plastic barriers taped to each of them. Analysis of some countries’ initial successes in containing the outbreak attributes them to widespread testing and contact tracing, more so than these other measures. That’s not to say that temporary barriers do not serve a purpose, but when reviewed at some point in the future it will likely be found that they were more effective as emotional supports for uneasy parents, and in the workplace, evidence that employers are taking employee’s health concerns seriously, than as a measure to prevent contagion.” — Nick Gillissie, industrial designer at Allseating and partner at modus ID

How will COVID-19 impact school design in the long-term? 

“When approaching education projects, designers will carefully consider needs for digital resiliency. The idea is simple, just as our buildings are able to function when a natural disaster occurs, so too must they be ready in the event of a crisis that forces the world to operate solely on a digital scale.

Designers will take the widespread community impact of COVID-19 into consideration when creating and renovating schools. We will be looking for strategies that enable students to connect to their school building even if they can’t physically be inside. Students who may not have access to Wi-Fi, or who can’t rely on safe experiences at home, must be able to look to their community for resources in the event of another isolating crisis. We anticipate additional discussion around material selection as well as cleaning and maintenance protocols. Understanding how materials behave and interact may be something that gets increased scrutiny.” — James E. LaPosta Jr., FAIA, LEED AP, Principal, Chief Architectural Officer at JCJ Architecture

“Optimistically, the pandemic may spur interest in design that positively impacts socio-emotional learning. As stress levels rise in our children for a host of reasons, their physical and social environments need to be ever more able to support them. In our design work we strive to create a sense of connection and community, which has been shown to be important for combatting depression and the social isolation that can lead to bullying, violence, and suicide. Thus, we hope to see communities valuing design solutions that provide integrated artwork, stimulating colors and textures in finishes and surface materials, and highlighted connections to the natural environment, while creating inspiring educational features — all within the context of safety, of course.” — Julia McFadden, AIA, associate principal and K-12 sector leader for Svigals + Partners, New Haven, CT

“I am suspect that the design of buildings and spaces can address a COVID-19 condition. When one boards an airplane, one is entering a vacuum-sealed Pringles potato chip tube with 259 other potato chips on board; reversing the middle seat simply does not alter that fundamental condition. If COVID-19, and all its brothers, sisters and cousins, are here to stay — and I fear with global climate change and globalism, that is, in fact, the case — the answer will be fewer gatherings and fewer spaces to gather.” — John Kirk, AIA, Partner, Cooper Robertson

“Over time we will see more schools replace potentially unhygienic surface finishes like carpeting and upholstery with more durable and cleanable materials – applications that will stand up to more regular scrubbing and sanitizing.” — Mark A. Sullivan, AIA, LEED AP, partner with JZA+D

“Food service will be significantly impacted both short- and long-term. One solution for the fall is for districts to offer prepackaged meals to students, which eliminates the human-to-human contact that occurs in a school cafeteria. A long-term change may include offering food choices that can be ordered from a school issued device and picked up at a counter, again eliminating human-to-human contact during the transaction.” — Jim French, FAIA, DLR Group Senior Principal, Global K-12 Education Studio leader

“As designers, we will need to rethink these ‘second nature’ processes to ensure less school density and minimize contact with other students, faculty, and/or common touchpoints. To combat this, schools have to change the way classes are scheduled and shared spaces are cleaned. Additionally, schools will need to provide hand sanitizer or sanitizing stations near areas of high-traffic touch points such as doorknobs or playgrounds.

Nurse stations will also be re-designed in the future, as many students visit the nurse throughout the day—whether that’s to pick up their daily medicine, because they have a minor cut or bruise, or if they have a fever. We might have to start thinking of the nurse’s station as a split arrangement between those that have fever and those with other injuries to ensure the safety of all students.” — Vandana Nayak, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Perkins and Will, Dallas, TX

“As a furniture designer, now that the Covid lens has been pulled over my eyes, it might never be removed. Going forward we will be looking at every design we work on with new attention to cleanability, by way of: material choice, surface texture, connections, seams and overall form. I have seen evidence that thinking of a similar nature, but on a larger scale, is happening in interior design and architecture firms everywhere.

In furniture, as in all areas of product design, there are cost implications when trying to make something without any visible joints or seams, which can trap germs and are hard to properly disinfect. In steel, the removal of surface indentations may require extensive welding and grinding. This is meticulous work, done by skilled hands, which can add significant cost to a product. We are far from being able to affordably produce smooth and uniform school furnishings as if they were carved from singular pieces of polished stone, metal or plastic, nor am I sure we would want such furniture, even if we had the budget. The furniture we design now will stop short of that ‘ideal’ but will be an improvement, from a cleanability perspective at least, on what we have designed and manufactured in the past.” — Nick Gillissie, industrial designer at Allseating and partner at modus ID

What are some design options available to schools now that can help with social distancing rules in facilities?

“Most schools have spatial resources that may need to be evaluated through a new filter. Large volume spaces such as a school’s cafeteria, gymnasium and auditorium may become significant assets which schools can use on an interim basis to create physical distance between students.

An additional design option that is currently available to schools is wayfinding techniques in the hallways––for example, lines or arrows that show students what side of the hallway to walk down. To help with social distancing measures, this could be a concept that is more readily enforced by educators so that students aren’t passing each other too closely, and/or following behind each other at a close proximity.

We anticipate that moving into the summer recess and in preparation for the fall, there will be many questions about how the physical space can be quickly adapted. It is our experience that often there need to be multiple strategies – developed in concert and deployed thoughtfully – to address issues and challenges we may face in the future.” — James E. LaPosta Jr., FAIA, LEED AP, Principal, Chief Architectural Officer at JCJ Architecture

“For some quick fixes, schools could look to international precedents in Southeast Asia where they’ve dealt with SARS and other pandemic like viruses. Any parent or teacher knows strategies of social distancing are improbable if not impossible for children in a confined school setting. Expect to see masks and clear plexiglass screens on desks in overcrowded classrooms as it may be among the only means available. Schools with a larger classroom footprint may be able to space desk further apart, abandoning the modern notions of group learning for traditional school house individual desk models. Air filters will be replaced with higher performing more expensive filters and surfaces will be dotted with CDC approved cleaners attempting to shield our youth from each other….  These items may partially help the perceived short-term problem, but in the end would those billions be better spent on properly designed schools?” — Jason Boyer, AIA, LEED AP, Principal at Studio Ma, Phoenix, AZ.

“It’s difficult to imagine how effective social distancing in schools can be achieved, nor should we expect it to be. The vital question is when it will be safe for students and teachers to return to the school building.” — Mark A. Sullivan, AIA, LEED AP, partner with JZA+D

“A simple option to control circulation is adding visual cues on the floor that outline pathways and illustrate the six-foot separation rule. Students, especially young kids, are more apt to follow social distancing guidelines with specific visual instructions in place. Incorporating flexible furniture within a classroom or open instructional space also allows students to modify their environment and inherently separate from one another. Finally, utilizing large volume spaces, such as gymnasiums, media centers, and commons areas, as additional academic space will help to reduce the number of students inside a classroom and provide ample room for social distancing.” — Jim French, FAIA, DLR Group Senior Principal, Global K-12 Education Studio leader

“The implications of social distancing would require reducing density and rethinking the flow of the students to avoid compromising the social distancing requirements. For example, the schools would need to rethink how students arrive and leave the building, as well as how they transition from one class to another throughout the day. There is often a very controlled sequence of arrival and dismissal in many schools where they may utilize only two or three entry points and for a short window. One way to reduce density is to stagger arrival times or open up multiple entrances. Temperature checks at entry points may become necessary. Use of technology such as wearable devices or heat sensing cameras may also help reduce congestion at entry points.

Traditionally, designers focus on student mobility throughout the day, leaving teachers stationary. A new model could be focused on the teachers moving classroom to classroom throughout the day, while students stay in place. An approach like this could reduce density in areas, such as hallways, that are typically crowded. Also, minimizing classroom changes and cleaning desks between transitions may also reduce the amount of exposure each student has throughout the school day.” — Vandana Nayak, AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Perkins and Will, Dallas, TX

“It remains to be seen if social distancing within high occupancy buildings, particularly schools, will be an effective strategy in fighting Covid during an outbreak. Further research may determine children are not significant carriers and transmitters of the virus, but until such a discovery is made, or an effective vaccine is developed, school life will likely be characterized by intermittent periods of time together and apart.

There are an increased number of space division elements in the designs we are currently working on, but these are just as much for emotional wellbeing in the sense of security they provide as they are a measure to promote distancing. Design for cleanability and solutions that support continuity between school, work and home environments are where we feel our design and development efforts to limit the spread of the virus will be best spent.

When severe outbreaks occur, we will hopefully be equipped with as many tools as possible to facilitate connection and some semblance of normalcy in our social, work and school lives. When the outbreaks subside, we will more fully appreciate the times we have together and take full advantage of them while they last.” — Nick Gillissie, industrial designer at Allseating and partner at modus ID