Will coronavirus prevention have positive long-term impact on classroom design?

When schools reopen, students will be greeted by plexiglass barriers, partitions and new classroom configurations designed to keep them as far apart as possible. Masks will likely be mandatory, class cohorts will be small, and movement will be inhibited.

Students will be sectioned off throughout the school, from offices to auditoriums to stages and gyms. Hallways will be one-directional, if possible, and passing times will be staggered to reduce traffic.

It won’t be school as usual, but it at least will be school, said Robert Dillon, director of innovative learning for the School District of University City in Missouri.

“Everyone has relegated themselves to the fact that there is going to be less movement in classrooms and in all these learning spaces,” he said. “Students will be in a desk, in a row, and all of the best practices that include giving kids choices and agency to move around is going to be inhibited for the next six to nine months.”

That said, there are some things within a teacher’s control that can help students manage this temporary normal.

“Kids can stand up at their desks, they can sit on top of their desks. There may be places in the back of the room where students can stand,” he said. “If they have to sit at the same desk for six hours a day, they will go mad.”

He also urges teachers to declutter their teaching material and remove it from classrooms to make more space available for students.

“We need to make a healthy, but also humane, environment for students,” he said.

Common areas emerge as biggest concerns

A survey from the DLR Group, an architecture firm, found the spread of coronavirus in bathrooms, cafeterias, classrooms and common areas to be the greatest concerns. The survey queried administrators, teachers, students and parents. According to the survey, fewer are concerned about playground interactions and career and technical education rooms, fine arts areas and maker-spaces.

The survey also found most district-level administrators will adhere to government guidelines on how and when to reopen, and most will install plenty of hand-sanitizing stations in high-risk areas.

Raechel French, educational planner with DLR Group, said moveable furniture, whiteboards and desks will help schools facilitate separating students.

Meanwhile, technology will be key to keeping them connected. Through technology, students can communicate from a distance while still seeing each other across the room.

“Moveable furniture makes it much easier to convert different areas, such as auditoriums, into new learning spaces,” French said. “It makes for more flexibility when partitioning off areas for smaller groups of learners.”

Partitions can add social distance in tighter spaces

Not all classrooms will be able to accommodate six feet of social distance, so the Centers for Disease Control recommends partitions in areas where social distancing is difficult. John Stein, founder and CEO of eco-friendly interior design manufacturer Kirei, said districts are inquiring about partitions that can separate now but later be re-purposed to create flexible learning spaces.

“Schools are strategizing in real time how to come up with social distancing solutions that can be modular, changing configurations quickly and as-needed for the dynamic classroom of 2020 and beyond,” Stein said. “While each district is different, the CDC guidelines require strategies to retrofit, reconfigure and reinvent educational spaces for learning environments that are as safe as possible.”

Stein advises districts to think both short- and long-term when selecting products. He said acoustic partitions enhance both aesthetics and sound, which will be important if students and teachers are all wearing face masks. Partitions can range in price from $100 to $300, and he warns they can take between two to 10 weeks to ship, depending on the order. He also recommends lightweight partitions for elementary schools, as they reduce the risk of injury in the event one tips over.

“Designing classrooms with a feeling of openness will be key to making the return to the learning environment a positive one,” he said. “No student or teacher wants to return to school to find a rat maze, so finding the balance of modular, stylish and community-promoting design elements will be essential.”

Flexibility is the future of the classroom

The new classroom configurations won’t be the new normal, but a temporary solution. Cindy Eggebrecht-Weinschreider, who specializes in classroom design and furniture, explains the modern classroom design fits well with the current needs of social distancing, but will transition seamlessly back to shared spaces and collaboration areas after the threat of the pandemic subsides.

“Modern learning spaces that include highly versatile and easily movable furniture have been critical in encouraging more active and engaging learning, because they can support a wide variety of learning modalities, activities and student groupings,” she said.

Schools that have already moved away from industrial classrooms with desks in rows will be at an advantage when they reopen, as flexible furniture will allow for reconfigurations that socially distance students in an aesthetically pleasing manner. While the movable desks trend seems to contradict the new social distancing requirements, the flexibility component fits right in.

“These types of learning environments are also well-positioned for teaching and learning during the pandemic, because they are highly adaptable to meet any need,” Eggebrecht-Weinschreider said. “For instance, desks can be reconfigured quickly to accommodate social distancing guidelines — and modern spaces can easily support a hybrid approach to learning that combines face-to-face and online instruction.”

Improving the school building infrastructure

According to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report, half of the country’s 13,000 school districts need to update or replace multiple systems in school buildings, with 41% needing to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Alan Ricks, founding principal and chief design officer at MASS Design Group, said 70% of the nation’s schools are at least 50 years old, built long before the needs of internet or computers. He hopes the renewed focus on the health and safety of students will put a new emphasis on improving the buildings’ mechanical systems.

“We can create better indoor air quality that leads to better health,” he said. “Schools are recirculating air from one classroom to another. We need to look at how these systems are functioning so we aren’t putting students and teachers at undue risk. The infrastructure solutions need to be long-term in focus.”

While the coronavirus threat will pass, the need for clean, healthy air in schools will remain, he said. Not only will improved HVAC systems help improve the air quality, so too, will operable windows that can provide passive ventilation.

“We need to re-imagine what is possible from schools,” he said. “What scares me is that we’ve seen this big shift in response to active shooters and we’ve been off-the-mark.”

He warns if a similar approach is taken to address the coronavirus, students could be encouraged to shun social interaction. He feels educators need to continue to find ways to foster that same level of engagement and creativity that comes from social interconnection from a diverse set of peers.

“School may be the one time in a person’s life that they interacted with someone different from themselves,” he said. “That’s why social interaction at school is important.”

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