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Learning Environments After COVID-19: Implementation Strategies and Planning

How can learning facilities adapt to physical distancing and other pandemic-related protocols?

By and

Date

June 9, 2020

As the return to physical learning facilities and in-person instruction is deliberated by local, state and national officials, there are several key issues that need to be addressed in order to produce the best possible outcomes in spaces now effected by physical distancing protocols. Students returning to school is an important step in getting parents back to work, whether they plan to return to a physical office or will continue to work remotely with fewer interruptions. Both are important options for long-term productivity and success, and returning to the physical classroom is also critical for the social, emotional and learning development of students.

Short-term solutions include providing healthy, clean and safe environments while maintaining the parameters of social distancing and using virtual-education delivery methods where necessary. What might happen next is difficult to determine, but critically examining the challenges that lay ahead, and reimagining how to deliver safe, adaptive and engaging learning experiences, can be done. Some areas to consider include:

Instructional Spaces

Current classroom configurations are typically designed for 20-30 students. This is based on an allowance influenced by an instructional delivery model in the range of 30-36 square feet per student. The same amount of space must now accommodate the mandatory 2-meter or 6-foot physical distance between people, which would require additional space of up to four times the square footage per student. This effectively limits student capacity to approximately 25 per cent than that of the original design. If various forms of physical barriers were to be installed, the existing space capacity could be increased closer to 50 per cent, though at a potentially high cost.

Both of these scenarios necessitate alternative options for instructional delivery in order to maintain the student capacity for which the facilities were designed. Assuming that large gathering and collaboration spaces will not be utilized in the near term for their intended use, spaces such as cafeterias, gymnasiums and large group instruction facilities could be utilized to provide supplementary teaching environments that enable increased student capacities for in-person instruction. However, there would need to be an increase in the number of instructional staff members to accommodate this.

A number of possible solutions to student density in the facilities more broadly are available. They include organizing students into AM and PM groups, adapting other facilities in the district or community for use as supervised remote learning centers, or block scheduling. Remote learning could be conducted at home or in a supervised facility that provides access to necessary infrastructure in specific communities or digital deserts. Districts can look at utilizing community spaces such as public libraries, community centers, vacant retail and food-service establishments, etc.

Possible block schedules might involve Block A attending school Monday & Wednesday in-person, and Tuesday & Thursday in a remote location, while Block B is on the opposite schedule. Fridays could be left open as flexible days for virtual sessions and deep cleaning the facilities over a three-day weekend. Another alternative schedule might see Block A attending school in-person during week one, and utilizing remote learning tools during week two, and vice versa for Block B.

Operations

Implementing touchless utilities, including restroom fixtures, sinks, soap dispensers, and hand drying stations will be a critical first step. Options for high-traffic doors, light switches converted to occupancy-based sensors, and other similar solutions will also be important. Touchless hand-sanitizer dispensers should also be placed throughout the facility.

Routine cleaning protocols for high-touch areas, daily sanitization procedures and weekly deep cleaning measures should be implemented in all spaces. All finishes should be easy-to-clean and sanitized regularly. If a material does not fit these parameters, it should be removed from the facility.

Nutrition

Food service presents a particularly challenging modification, that can be addressed mainly on the dining side of the equation. Grab-and-go meals eaten in the classroom is one straightforward option, but would require additional sanitation procedures. Providing dining accommodations in the traditional sense, along with social distancing requirements, would diminish the capacity of seating to 25-30 per cent. Operating at this reduced capacity, it would take the majority of the instructional day to execute the food service, which seems an impractical solution unless other space is made available for dining.

HVAC and Indoor Environment

Changes from existing systems to MERV 13 filtration should be considered. For cleaner air, using new installations should be considered, with options including ultraviolet light germicidal systems, HEPA filtration or low velocity air distribution systems, designed to limit air particle movement in a space. Disabling CO2 or other demand-based ventilation will insure maximum air exchanges and filtration at all times during occupancy.

Access

Access to the facility for both staff and students could require establishing disinfection stations and quarantine areas at entry to accommodate temperature screening and hygiene procedures. Logistical planning is essential for conducting temperature checks, whether active or touchless. Thermal scanning could be used to avoid creating a backup of students waiting to be admitted into the building, however the implications for individual privacy should be considered.

Limiting outside guests and deliveries into the facility, or restricting them to a small, controlled geographic area that is sanitized regularly, should also be considered to maintain daily operations. Establishing formalized procedures to promote contactless deliveries, when feasible, will be important.

Transportation

Getting to-and-from school presents another challenge to logistical capacity. Public transportation will be faced with its own challenges if that’s to be the primary means of transporting students from home-to-school and back again. Buses provided by the school district will see their capacities reduced by 25-50 per cent, depending on the use of separation barriers, which will create a burden on transportation fleets and impact the times during which students can travel to-and-from their learning facilities.

The number of parents choosing to drop-off their kids could increase as the health and safety concerns around public transportation evolve, which could mean creating additional traffic on adjacent roadways. If attendance schedules are staggered or adjusted to reduce student density, then traffic congestion could be mitigated.

Music, Physical Education, Athletics, Career and Technical Education, Extracurriculars

Social distancing protocols will effect the operation of high-touch extracurricular spaces offering extracurricular programming. For many students, their social and emotional development is dependent on extracurricular activities. Maintaining this important component will require significant consideration of the relevant logistical and behavioural changes, as well as adaptive protocols for when and how these interactions will occur.

After School Programs and Supplemental Services

For many instructional facilities, the need to supervise and support student interaction does not stop at the end of the school day. Many parents rely on after-school programs, which can range from supervised camps to supplemental instruction and care. Many of these programs produce high levels of social interaction, so thoughtful planning around how to transition from the typical school environment to these after-school programs will remain imperative. Achieving appropriate social distancing may not be an issue due to a smaller student count, however supervisory roles may need to be increased as the use of singular spaces will likely be dispersed across several areas to maintain appropriate physical separation.

Learn More About Post-Pandemic Learning Environments

With over 30 years of experience, Mark French LEED AP BD+C offers extensive design and project management experience in educational facilities. He is involved on all aspects of a project including schematic design, design development, construction documents and project management. Mark earned the Recognized Educational Facility Professional designation from the Council of Educational Facility Planners International in 2002 due to his extensive experience in educational facility planning and design. He also achieved the designation of Accredited Learning Environments Planner in 2013.

Shari is a Project Manager specializing in K-12 projects and a co-office lead in our San Jose office. With over 20 years of experience in designing education facilities, she has led notable projects in northern California such as the Lincoln Elementary School Modernization and the Cupertino Middle School Modernization for our Cupertino School District client, among many others. A forward-thinking and progressive architect, Shari plays an integral role on projects bringing her experience and confidence to our key clients in education. Shari is a licensed architect in the state of California.

Headshot of Mark French

Written by Mark French

Director | US Deputy Education Lead, Buildings
Houston, TX
Headshot of Shari Gratke

Written by Shari Gratke

Associate Principal | Education, Buildings
San Jose, CA
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