K-12 Schools and the Response to COVID-19

The end of May is usually a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the school year just completed and look forward to new opportunities in the coming year, but this has been a spring semester unlike any other. The rapid transformation required of schools and universities in response to the COVID-19 virus has been both unprecedented and involuntary.  Schools are now busy planning alternative scenarios for unknown conditions next academic year as the situation continues to evolve. While development of an effective vaccine could allow a return to something close to the previous paradigm, many public health officials anticipate that a vaccine will not be generally available until well after the start of the fall semester.

Back to school: on-line and on campus

After months of teaching and learning virtually, students and teachers alike are ready to get back to the classroom, but many predictions suggest that it’s unlikely that faculty, staff, and students will return to campus all at once. When schools feel it is safe to start bringing people back to campus, what will that classroom look like? Schools will need to de-densify existing spaces, rethink underutilized space, decentralize activities like dining and recreation, and incorporate pedagogy to support virtual, on-campus and hybrid programs. While spaces may have previously been designated for specific purposes, there may now be an opportunity to maximize the use of previously underutilized space in new ways. Existing space underutilized under social distancing guidelines could be re-envisioned as supplemental learning environments.

Fewer people in the same space

To maintain safe distance, most spaces will be no more than half-full, and people will have to move through spaces differently. Space usage will be scheduled differently, possibly spread out over more hours, and it may require more staff to operate and enforce new norms. These space changes will have implications for both people and programs. Faculty can’t double their teaching loads because classrooms are half-full, so some schools will flip the classroom by recording videos that students can watch (either on-campus or off) and then come together in right-sized groups for discussion. Many schools are considering some version of block scheduling to increase flexibility in controlling the number of people on campus. Others are considering split morning/afternoon schedules, or schedules split by Monday, Wednesday & Friday vs. Tuesday & Thursday.

One model suggests a shift in the makeup of a school week that deconstructs the typical 5-day structure into blocks of time in traditional settings, with other time spent on things like online learning, service work, or experiential learning activities. This could allow for more students to the share use of campus facilities at different times, increasing the reach of a school with the same facilities. Changes in class scheduling approaches might yield efficiencies that may accommodate smaller class sizes brought on by the global pandemic, without adding more space to campus.

Technology and Infrastructure

Scientists believe that the primary transmission of the virus is through droplets in the air, so many schools are considering safety upgrades to air conditioning systems. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has published a protocol for infectious disease control and the reduction of exposure to the airborne virus. ASHRAE’s recommendations are built around four primary strategies: Clean Air Delivery, Filtration & Sterilization, Dilution, and Containment. ASHRAE’s website offers extensive detail and a variety of research-based technical resources.

The abrupt change from in-person to online instruction caught many schools by surprise. Schools that were already using digital platforms to deliver online content had a head start, as did those that were already using tools like Turnitin.com for homework submission. However, many teachers were forced to create new materials and pedagogies in a hurry. Effective online instruction requires different skills and techniques than does in-person instruction, particularly to maintain the level of person-to-person engagement so important for learning. Schools should be providing resources, training and support for the most effective teaching.

While there is a clear need to augment information technology systems and instructional platforms to better support an online and/or hybrid learning environment, there is also a need to invest in technology to reduce the disparity that the pandemic has exposed across students with varying socio-economic backgrounds. The need to learn from home has amplified existing discrepancies, so the expanded use of a fully virtual or hybrid learning environment will require an improved support network for students to ensure equitable access to technology.

Additional strategies:


One benefit of this worldwide pandemic is that there are a lot of smart people already thinking, researching and writing about effective online teaching and learning strategies, potential facilities solutions, and strategies for reducing the likelihood of exposure. Below is a list of useful resources.

Predictions on the Future of Education

 Assessment, Analysis and Recommendations for Future Planning

Thanks to www.brightspotstrategy.com/covid-19-resources-higher-education/ for many of the above references

Jonathan Rollins is a Principal with GFF Architects