How to Keep COVID-19 from Negatively Impacting Learning Space Design

With construction projects being halted nationwide, keeping learning space projects on track is a prime concern for K-12 schools. While social distancing rules may prohibit teams from meeting in person to discuss layouts and design plans, they can still meet remotely to brainstorm, share ideas, plan, and move their projects forward. 

Deemed “essential,” school projects in many states are moving forward despite the challenges that lie in their path right now. And should schools reopen in August, they will need their facilities ready to receive students. As the Detroit Free Press points out, construction projects being delayed at Michigan schools could actually wind up costing more in the long run.

The good news is that thanks to technology, the design process need not be paused; it can still move forward. The question is, how can we make it seamless for our school community to work together remotely?

Here are five tips that all districts can use to reimagine the learning space design process in both the current environment, and in a post-COVID world:

1. Use transparent communication to stay connected.

Maintain frequent and regular check-ins via email, remote calls, or video chat. This transparent communication is crucial when everyone is searching for up-to-date information, such as how lead times are impacted. You can also stay connected through social media. For example, use Google Forms for stakeholder feedback and Google Hangouts to replace face-to-face meetings. Then, use a shared document to update the project timeline and milestones.

2. Set realistic timelines and expectations.

Stick to your timeline. Pushing things off may seem easy to do during these uncertain times, but it can delay the project and add costs. For example, now is not the time to postpone decisions around furniture specification. Delays in this area could result in a rushed thought process down the road, when decision-making becomes timelier. In fact, districts that are ready to go out to bid may be able to take advantage of a favorable bid market.

3. Digitize the process and put project tools within reach.

Work remotely with designers “on demand” to get a quick turnaround on renderings and other project elements. Select finishes remotely with digital design boards and digital finish guides, and tap into website resources like design symbols, finish guides, and spec sheets. Work with regional sales teams and design support online, and include inspiration guides, look books, and other design ideas that team members can use when making their decisions.  To communicate with team members and vendors, utilize a collaborative platform like Google Docs or Dropbox.

4. Get together remotely.

Social distancing rules are impacting our ability to meet face-to-face, but virtual meetings are the next best thing. Understand that remote meetings may be new for some team members, and that there may be a learning curve for these individuals. You can break through these barriers by designating one person to set up and lead the meeting; send out an agenda in advance (and then reference it during the call); and use a specified time limit.

5. Rise to the occasion and look ahead. 

As districts plan for next academic year, it is clear that school will be different. Facilities will play an important part of the preparations, and now is the time for districts to work with their design teams to prepare for the immediate challenges of teaching and learning during this pandemic, but also build resilience for future challenges. This is a complex issue and will require a multi-faceted approach that may include material selection, signage, bathroom improvements, ventilation, as well as operational changes.  

Social distancing rules and shelter-in-place orders may be threatening to impact school construction and design this year, but that doesn’t mean the process has to be completely halted. In fact, many school construction projects, including projects that address mechanical systems and ventilation, may be more critical to move forward in this moment. Using the tips outlined in this article, you can keep your projects on track in order to be ready for students to return to the classroom.

About the Author

Manuel Cordero is a licensed architect in Providence, Rhode Island with a focus on educational and community planning projects. He works at the School Building Authority at the Rhode Island Department of Education where he oversees design and construction in 300+ public school facilities in the State. He is an Adjunct Professor at RISD where his research and teaching has focused on urban resilience and infrastructure. 

Dr. Christina Counts, VP of Strategy and Development for MiEN Company, is a proven leader with a successful background in transforming learning spaces to modern engaging learning environments.  Dr. Counts has worked in education for over 17 years with experience as a classroom teacher, district instructional leader, school administrator, and digital and innovative learning designer.