What’s Next: 3 ways college campuses will look different this fall

Editor’s note: In this column, we’re looking ahead at how the coronavirus pandemic could affect higher ed in the long term. Have an idea or question you’d like us to look into? Let us know. Read more of our coverage of how the coronavirus is impacting higher ed.

While the higher ed sector weighs the feasibility and practicality of reopening campuses this fall, many schools plan to bring at least some students back. And there has been little argument that those doing so will need to change how spaces are used.

That depends on several factors. Among them is the degree to which students will be living and learning on campus, which varies widely across the sector. According to one count of more than 1,200 colleges, just over half are planning for in-person instruction this fall. Nearly a third expect to have a mix of on-campus and online instruction. Some schools plan to limit in-person instruction to courses requiring hands-on learning, and many are opening dorms to students whose best housing option is on campus.

But design and engineering experts who advise colleges believe their approaches to preventing the virus from spreading within their community will vary not only based on how people are using the campus but also on the age of the infrastructure, the outdoor climate and the array of spaces at officials’ disposal.

In many cases, the changes come at a considerable expense. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that universities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade their ventilation systems, make doorways hands-free and install plexiglass barriers throughout campus, among other fixes.

“It’s going to be an experiment this fall. It’s going to be a test to see which solution worked better than the others,” said Jessica Figenholtz, the higher education practice leader at Perkins and Will’s Chicago office. 

Classrooms will spread out

Social distancing in the classroom will require having either fewer students in the same space or the same number of students in a larger space.

“You can begin to look around the campus and say, ‘OK, how many classrooms really do they have that they are going to be able to use to manage this?’ And it drops pretty significantly,” said Dean Rodeheaver, senior campus planner at Credo, which consults on campus planning. 

The firm is recommending schools allow at least 40 square feet of space per student. Other models call for having a third of people in a space as usual.

Deploying non-classroom spaces is one solution. Those include areas already designed for people to gather, such as auditoriums, theaters and recital halls, as well as amphitheaters. Lobbies that can accommodate crowds before a performance or other function could also be used, said Steve Morley, director of campus planning at Credo. In those cases, temporary partitions can help reduce distractions. 

In general, areas with open floor plans that can accommodate moveable furniture are ideal. Spaces that won’t adapt easily include tiered or raised lecture halls with fixed furniture, said Paul Leef, vice president of campus strategy and analytics at SmithGroup. Gymnasiums and multipurpose rooms can also present a challenge with regard to acoustics and the need to bring in technology.

Even still, there is only so much extra space to use for classes. And colleges might also need to extend the time between classes or stagger start times to reduce crowding in the halls and to give cleaning crews time to sanitize areas. One option is to extend the duration of the school day and even the week, such as adding classes on Saturday, but that could lead to long days.

“Getting the fit right has been, I think, a real challenge,” Leef said.

New norms and cues will guide behavior

To help prevent the spread of the virus in less-prescriptive spaces, such as common areas, Figenholtz said colleges could remove furniture and tape off pieces that cannot be moved. Swapping out door knobs for hands-free options could also help, she said, noting that many of the changes needed to indicate people should act differently are low-tech.

“A lot of what we’re talking about is behavior change, and changing people’s habits,” said Credo’s Rodeheaver. “How do you change people’s habits? It’s not by giving them information, it’s by giving them different environmental cues.”

For the Community College of Allegheny County, in Pennsylvania, that features a combination of tactics, which include wayfinding signage and notices indicating which classroom furniture cannot be used, said J.B. Messer, the college’s vice president and chief facilities officer. 

Arrows taped onto the floor showing which way to enter and exit spaces could also help de-densify buildings, Figenholtz said, though she notes that class times will have to be reconfigured to limit the number of people in the building.

Clear wayfinding to and through testing and temperature checkpoints to avoid cross contamination is also important. A common entry point to a building could also be a testing point, Morley said.

A screenshot of a planning tool used by cannon design to determine density in classroom spaces.

A screenshot of a planning tool used by CannonDesign to determine density in campus spaces accounting for social distancing needs.

Permission granted by CannonDesign


In dorms, students living in higher densities may be required to quarantine together if someone gets sick. Lower-density housing may include dedicated space for infected individuals to isolate.  

Creating smaller communities within the campus could also help assist in testing and contact tracing, Leef said. Planning experts suggested students who are living together could jointly participate in co-curricular activities.

But managing who students and employees interact with, and where and how, will be a new challenge for schools, and recent research and reporting suggest it may be impossible. Prior to the pandemic, Credo was recommending colleges create space for people to linger before and after class. 

“Everything we’ve been about has been to try to create pause,” Rodeheaver said. “Now we’re undoing that to create movement.”

Indoor air quality will be a focus

Because the coronavirus spreads in part through respiratory droplets and other small particles in the air — such as when someone coughs or sneezes  ventilation has become a focus. 

Changes can include bringing more outside air into a space  the most common recommendation  and increasing the filtration level in HVAC systems. The addition of ultraviolet or HEPA air cleaning devices is another option for spaces with HVAC systems that cannot add more outside air or that lack mechanical ventilation. These can be installed in the HVAC system, or placed in the room. 

Opening a window can help, too, but even with a box fan it may not be practical as the lone solution, said Cindy Cogil, director of engineering at SmithGroup. The potential for extreme temperatures, humidity, pollen, noise and pollution make that tactic incompatible with classroom needs. 

Humidity is another consideration. Levels of 40% to 60% are considered ideal for preventing the spread of viruses, which tends to happen more easily at lower levels. Conventional air conditioning helps control humidity in warmer months, but the winter can pose a challenge as outdoor humidity levels drop out of that range in parts of the country. Adding humidifiers is an option for some buildings.

But Patrick Dempsey, a mechanical engineer at CannonDesign, notes that increasing humidity levels in an older structure with a leaky building envelope can lead to moisture accumulation and issues maintaining the desired humidity.

Not all spaces require changes, notes Teresa Rainey, director of engineering at EYP, pointing out that laboratories usually have higher levels of outside air and filtration. “It may be just a matter of verifying the system is operating as designed,” she said. 

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, an industry group, offers more information about air quality for colleges amid the pandemic, as does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s going to be an experiment this fall. It’s going to be a test to see which solution worked better than the others.”

Jessica Figenholtz

Higher education practice leader, Perkins and Will’s Chicago office.

Rainey and Dempsey recommend schools tell their campuses about changes made regarding air quality. That could include notices on their websites, in emails and through signage at building entrances or in classrooms. But Cogil cautions against “hyping” mechanical modifications. And new research shows the virus could spread through air-handling units, meaning better ventilation isn’t a singular panacea.

Rather, ventilation is one tactic in a bigger virus-prevention toolkit that also includes mask-wearing and social distancing, Cogil and Rainey point out

While the sector will learn more about the effectiveness of virus prevention strategies in the next few months as campuses reopen, Cogil added, “I can assure you that most of us in the HVAC industry would prefer to answer these questions by way of science and simulation.”

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