Learning from the Pandemic: Designing Better Schools
By Karl P. Griffith, ALA and Michael J. Harris, AIA
Securing school facilities from external physical risks has been a major concern for districts over the past decade. Now Covid-19 has disrupted the educational system, bringing with it a new level of risk. The new reality has architects thinking about how school facilities’ might change so districts’ can continue to execute their mission during critical times.
Can the design and function of a building make a difference? Part of the answer to this question lies in social norms, how we interact with each other, and personal hygiene habits like hand washing and sanitizing our work areas. In just a few weeks, our attitude towards these practices has changed dramatically, and undoubtably forever. Doorknobs are our most common point of communal contact. Bathroom fixtures and accessories which haven’t been upgraded to touchless are another. Poor filtration and inadequate fresh air-changes into our buildings through mechanical systems may also increase the risk of transmission. All these things can be addressed through thoughtful design and specification of proper products and systems. For starters, we can draw on design standards commonly implemented in the design of medical facilities. Touchless operation, anti-microbial materials, easily cleanable surfaces, increased outside air introduction and enhanced filtration methods can all be implemented in school construction projects.
School districts are the center of every community, and in times of crisis they find themselves being a hub for providing much needed support services. Lunch and daycare programs continue to operate, and districts have drawn upon their available technology resources to facilitate the 3D printing of personal protection gear or provide wireless access to those in need.
Perhaps the most significant impact to the educational system will be the effect of remote teaching; how can we educate students effectively utilizing electronic means? This inevitable societal trend has now been forced upon us before we are totally prepared. What might a building designed to utilize today’s technology and future eventualities look and feel like?
Superintendent Carol Pallas, of the Schalmont CSD incorporated some new concepts in her recent project. “As we approached the design thinking for our new high school construction, we looked at spaces that could bring students together, such as a “learning commons”. This was purposeful for students to have a learning space that is flexible, incorporates different types of seating for collaboration, and allows them to utilize technology both through a media wall and their own district-provided devices.”
Beyond the physical changes, how might a technology based curriculum affect school design? Like some college courses, will public school instruction someday be a blend of online learning and school facilities focused on socialization and more direct tutoring? Superintendent Pallas adds, “We need to shift towards how we include online learning and project-based learning for students on a regular basis.”
Many of these design concepts are present, to varying degrees, in most districts. Our future will be decentralized, individualized and digitized. There is no replacing the benefits of face to face contact between a student and teacher, but the recent events are a call to action to accelerate the move in the direction technology is already leading us. The capability and capacity to respond to these trends and to develop a students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills utilizing advanced technologies will be a main priority for school administrators in the years ahead.
This article was originally posted in the May 2020 edition of the Council of School Superintendents Councilgram Newsletter: Councilgram Newsletters
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