Strategies for School Building Re-occupancy

MSBA Easthampton PK-8 School Courtyard Classroom as Associate Architect with Caolo + Bieniek

For every parent, guardian, school administrator, educator, and student, the world came to a screeching halt mid-March when the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered school buildings across the country. Places of student community and gathering were shut down, and each occupant was directed to do just the opposite: stay home and be socially distant. The Spring semester of remote learning only highlighted the fact that in-school teaching is essential to developing young minds, stimulating social skills, and providing a safe and nurturing place to mature and grow independence while being part of a larger school community. As problem solvers and designers, we need to quickly reimagine the reoccupancy of these buildings.

As Architects we create safe environments. During this pandemic, we’ve examined several expeditious solutions and strategies that can be implemented to existing buildings to slow the spread of the virus, to be used in conjunction with other hygienic efforts. Studio G approaches every challenge creatively, and this is no different. We have continued to remain well-informed of the evolving issues and concerns related to reoccupancy and have compiled a few approaches that can be implemented as our learners, and those that care for them, prepare to return to school in the fall.

  1. Teach community responsibility. There is no doubt that more than ever, we are all in this together. Teaching and educating the population on proper hygiene and care has never been more critical to implement than today. Instill age appropriate protocol, lessons in hygiene, and expectations throughout the school community to flatten the curve of the virus and mitigate risk through community reaction.
  2. Outdoors is safer than indoors. Science has taught us that being outside provides natural ventilation that disseminates air particles and contaminants, thereby reducing the risk of individuals contracting the virus. Where possible, move the students outdoors to tents, pavilions, and open-air environments, such as parking structures with supplemental heat to provide the opportunity for natural ventilation while being shielded from the elements. In colder months, utilize public buildings such as libraries and senior centers which can be reimagined as classroom spaces, possibly using existing furniture.
  3. Reverse Nature-Deficit Disorder while addressing the pandemic. In recent years, students have been increasingly more disconnected with nature, which contributes to ‘a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses, weaken ecological literacy, and lesser stewardship of the natural world.’ (Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv) There is no better time to take the lessons outdoors, explore, and reconnect with nature.
  4. Hybrid learning as an indoor/ outdoor model. The hybrid model for teaching offers a combination of classroom and remote learning. In order to keep physical distancing while at school, class populations can be divided and the hybrid model becomes alternating between indoor and outdoor spaces, as opposed to sending the students home to learn for their remote learning portion of the day.
  5. Remote learning may work best for project-based learning. The learning modality of project-based learning provides firsthand experiences for students to participate in lessons authentically in real time. This direct experiential learning is inherent in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) curriculum. Instead of remote learning from home, explore the community to learn about nature, commerce, agriculture, infrastructure, and other gems within reach. Spark curiosity in STEAM by engaging in true to life, age appropriate experiences.
  6. If being indoors is necessary, keep the population density to the minimum. Regulations regarding number of students per classroom vary per age group and should be strictly enforced throughout the day to keep the cohorts of students and teachers to a minimum and consistent. Implementing good physical distancing measures are essential. Separation strategies, such as using plexiglass dividers on desks and tables, should also be considered. In the reoccupancy strategy, larger spaces such as the cafeteria and library can be repurposed for additional classroom areas, especially near operable windows. A more frequent and thorough building cleaning regimen should be considered and align with guidelines established by local, state, and federal authorities.

    Match Community Charter School cafeteria allows easy, safe transition between indoors and outdoors when needed

  7. Improve building filtration. Covid-19 is an airborne pathogen. Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values (MERV) identifies a filter’s ability to capture air particles. District facilities should invest in a filter rating of MERV 13, or higher. The higher the MERV rating, the better the filter is at trapping specific types and sizes of particles. Note that using MERV 13 filters may not be possible to older Mechanical systems that cannot withstand the increased filter capacity. In this case, provide portable air filters to bring fresh outside air into the spaces. The investments we take today will likely reduce airborne illnesses in future, such as during cold and flu season.
  8. Open windows whenever possible. Access to outside air should be maximized to every extent possible with open windows, providing natural ventilation to the room. The fresh air from outdoors dilutes and disperses contaminated air that may be present indoors.
  9. Increase signage. Provide reminders for hygiene and physical distancing expectations that are age appropriate, easy to understand, and strategically located throughout the building. Also use signage as markers for physical distancing and circulation guidance.

Challenges create opportunities. While we all learn to adapt to our new normal, simple actions made today to reimagine buildings and learning modalities will benefit all of us for the long term of what this pandemic is really teaching us: to reconnect with nature, to appreciate our community, and to create healthy buildings that will service us far beyond the present day.

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