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How can Flexibility Support Innovative Pandemic Responses in Classrooms?

The IBI-designed Mary Lyon Elementary School is realizing unexpected benefits as a result of its progressive and flexible design amidst the challenges of the pandemic, leading to increased safety and innovative approaches to learning.



October 22, 2020

These changes stem from brain research, technology, and a greater understanding of how we learn. We now understand that we all learn different things in different ways at different times, and personalization and differentiation have become important learning principles. We know that change is not merely a constant — in many cases, it is happening at an accelerated rate. As designers, we did not fully realize how beneficial our approach to designing Mary Lyon Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington would be, even several months into the pandemic.

It was with the foundational premise of designing for change, during the school day and over time, that we designed a new school for 450 students in pre-kindergarten to grade five.

The school is located in a lower-income community that had long been underserved by the city and school district facilities. Parents, students, and educators, however, had high expectations and standards for student learning. The school is organized into separate wings of major activity and academic spaces, joined together by a central, open library. The classrooms are clustered into three learning neighbourhoods, each with nine classrooms and two smaller group collaboration rooms and a central open learning area (OLA). This versatile space is designed for a variety of uses, including hands-on makerspace activities, large gatherings and presentations. Both individuals and groups can learn and explore subjects as diverse as art, science, and technology, as well as basic learning skills.

One wall of each classroom is connected to these central OLAs by way of a folding glass NanaWall®. When closed, its glass surface provides transparency for the teacher to feel comfortable supervising students who venture outside of the classroom. This supports a co-teaching model, wherein teachers in adjacent classrooms can see each other and coordinate activities between their rooms. This also allows students to be inspired by what other classes are doing, and teachers have attested that this level of interaction has not made distraction a problem. The glass wall also provides suitable surfaces for displaying instructional material and inspiring posters while maintaining some transparency.

The design supports safety and physical distancing, without curtailing the student experience.

The increased visibility supports safety, with adult eyes able to monitor, and be seen monitoring, the central space, as well as anyone who enters this protected zone. During lockdown situations, this space can be easily isolated and a fabric curtain can be quickly drawn across the folding glass wall. This semi-intimate and controllable engagement supports a sense of community among the students, with their combined population well within the minimum physical distance allowed. When the glass panels are opened, the lines between classroom and open learning area all but disappear.

It was into this engaging environment that students moved in September 2019, only to have to move out when school was closed a few months later. In September 2020, several teachers utilized the flexibility of the space to create an innovative social distancing solution to protect students. First, the folding glass walls were opened and the classrooms expanded approximately four feet into the OLAs. Second, all but the most essential furniture was removed from the classrooms, enabling the OLAs to retain their function as flexible adjuncts to the classrooms.

These changes support student exploration and collaboration, and enable students to display their work in a semi-public realm that is within sight of the classroom as well as common circulation areas. Finally, movable cubbies and shelves placed on casters were used to separate the circulation routes between the OLAs and the expanded classrooms. This has allowed classrooms to re-open safely, with students spaced safely six feet apart within their expanded classrooms.

A major concern with keeping schools closed, or with providing some instruction to students at home via distance learning, is access to the amenities that in-school learning provides. Those with internet access could learn remotely, but not all students have equal access to the internet at home. By re-opening classrooms at full capacity, students can continue to receive the many benefits of in-school instruction, including access to resources like a free or reduced-price meal program, which nearly 70% of students at Mary Lyon’s qualify for. It also relieves the burden of providing childcare at home. For lower-income parents who cannot afford to take time off work to look after young children, or whose work was deemed essential, in-school instruction offers significant benefits.

Before opening, the school considered accommodating its full complement of students in larger spaces scattered throughout the school, which would have required additional teaching staff. While instructional and facilities costs are paid for out of separate budgets, it is estimated that that the operational savings resulting from not having to provide additional teaching staff will soon exceed the additional capital costs of installing the folding glass walls. The benefits of the school’s flexibility have been realized in ways not previously envisioned by the design team, the school, or the school district.

Ross is a senior architect and learning environment planner with more than 30 years of experience, with the past 20 years specializing in educational architecture. He is highly experienced in all phases of projects, from visioning through to final completion; and in a wide variety of project sizes, including new construction, renovation, historic preservation and reuse, and STEM focused schools.

A seasoned advocate for K-12 education, he has seen two of his projects recognized by the CEFPI (now A4LE) James D. MacConnell Awards committee. Ross is passionate about using design to connect students to their learning and natural environment and is a strong proponent of inclusive and culturally relevant community engagement for schools. His volunteer efforts include “working the phones” in support of school districts’ capital bond measures, local food banks and community non-profits, and speaking engagements at educational design conferences.

Headshot of Ross Parker

Written by Ross Parker

Associate Principal | Education, Buildings
Seattle, WA
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