Educational Environments in the Current and Post-Pandemic World

The next few years are sure to look vastly different than the world we left behind due to the recent coronavirus pandemic. Its effect on the built environment has already reached most all sectors of the economy and built environment, but schools might be the most universally affected. With over 132,000 schools and 56.6 million students among the public, private, and charter facilities across the United States, virtually every student, teacher, and family has felt the impact. Additionally, its fast and simultaneous spread across the globe suggests that adaptation, and even reinvention, is necessary and likely imminent in some communities.

The necessary solutions reside not in the full redesign of school buildings, but rather in modifications to teaching strategies, learning methodologies, and operational protocols.

Although many of these may be short-term actions, some will inevitably become long term solutions. Design experts already leverage design strategies, such as material selection and the WELL Building Standards, to ensure that schools are clean, safe, and healthy environments. Though heightened hygienic and spatial considerations are more important than ever, it is critical to not lose sight of the significant educational advancements made over the past 20-30 years that have manifested in open, transparent, flexibleand collaborative learning environments. 

At the end of the day, schools should still look and feel like schools – they require environments that reinforce 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving; are flexible and diverse, responding to social and emotional learning; and incorporate universal design for all. 

Ensuring the Necessities

No matter where students are learning, be it at home or in the classroom, they will need consistent access to several educational and life necessities. These include but are not limited to guardian support, good nutrition, comfortable learning environments with regulated temperature and ventilation, age-appropriate learning supplies, and modern technologies. As well, students need access to the outdoors and play, plus regular social interaction with fellow students and teachers. For some students, these necessities are not available either in home learning environments, or they are going back to a school ill-equipped for social distancing, proper hygiene, and the many CDC recommendations for returning to school.

In addition to these needs, approximately 18% of the student population in Massachusetts have Individual Education Plans (IEP). IEPs form the basis of Special Education services. These services range widely from tutoring or coaching in an individual subject, to helping with many types of physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. Services or instructions vary in size from small group to individual instruction and even 1:1 individual care. As these tools are accommodated in modern learning environments, we must also understand that some students may not be able to grasp the ideas of social distancing, frequent hand washing, and other recommended procedures.

Post Pandemic Schools Remote Learning Video chat

Disruptions to Emotional Development

Prolonged disruption to a child’s educational, social, and emotional development can have long-term effects, especially to those students who lack a supportive safety net at home. Engaging students in their learning is a critical factor to mitigating educational gaps. One method is the use of interdisciplinary project and problem-based activities, where children research, communicate, and collaborate with others to activate student agency. So, what does that mean in our new reality of forced remote learning?

The interim solution seems like it will reside in the heightened adoption of both remote learning and in-person learning, a combination referred to as ‘blended learning’ that had educator's support years before the pandemic began. According to the Christensen Institute, “blended learning is not the same as technology-rich instruction. It goes beyond one-to-one computers and high-tech gadgets. Blended learning involves leveraging the Internet to afford each student a more personalized learning experience, including increased student control over the time, place, path, and/or pace of learning.” Not only would it afford students the safety to learn from home when necessary, but it would also help bridge educational gaps and foster much-needed student agency in the absence of a classroom.

Safety through Protocol

As more students return to school, administrators will need to instill certain measures depending on building layout and classroom programming to maintain proper social distancing. In classrooms, it will mean spreading desks out across the room where possible. It may also involve reducing classroom sizes and temporarily replacing group worktables with individual desks, or even adding dividers to the tables. For cafeteria spaces, it prompts a re-assessment about where student dining should take place:

Are more lunch periods needed with fewer students in each? If we choose to ask students to eat in their classrooms instead, does this present a waste problem and require more custodians? Will all meals be pre-packaged?

Other safety measures that schools will need to consider involve maintaining proper hygiene throughout the building, but especially with hands-on specialty classes, extracurriculars, and transportation areas. Are outdoor classrooms, where and when possible, a good alternative for parts of the day and year? Imposing proper outdoor hygiene practices, one-way circulation throughout the building, temperature screenings, and prolonged pick-up and drop-off times to allow for proper distancing can help reduce community spread. Of course, these also lead to considerations on time lost: Is the current school day long enough to balance learning time with modern sanitation needs?

Safety Protocols Post Pandemic Schools Children and teachers in masks

Updating Aged Facilities

One of the less abstract obstacles with post-pandemic education is accounting for antiquated school buildings that are present in many communities, especially within urban environments. A number of these schools, having been built prior to WWII, share the following characteristics:

  • Small, cramped cafeteria facilities, in what were neighborhood schools that when built, did not have cafeterias.
  • Depending on the neighborhood, a lack of school busses or a dependency on public transportation.
  • Toilet facilities located in the basement, requiring students to navigate two or three flights of stairs to fulfill bodily needs.
  • No sinks in classrooms.
  • No, or wholly-inadequate, mechanical ventilation system.

Schools built after WWII overcome some of these shortcomings, but have been subjected to limitations due to location, budget, and scope. Not only will these facilities require heightened safety measures once students and staff start the return back to school, but they will also prompt creative design solutions, such as potentially implementing portable sinks on each floor, adding in additional bathroom cores, and improving HVAC and filtration systems. We must acknowledge that these schools will not be easy or inexpensive to update and adapt.

“We need to engage the public on how to move forward, and to listen to both student and teacher voices early in the process. The pandemic will impact future design in ways that we do not fully understand right now, but we can lead significant discussions amongst all parties of the school community. How can new facilities be safe while also reflective of school cultures and traditions? Together, we can strive to achieve comfortable learning and social environments.”