COVID-19 is an Opportunity to Reinvigorate Learning Environments for the Future

Over the past several months, we have all become increasingly aware of the risk of virus transmission in public spaces. In response, architects and other facility professionals have quickly swung into action to look for ways to create workspaces, learning environments, and residences that will help us combat the current pandemic and be better prepared for future threats.

In our practice here at Garza Architects, we have been thinking – and writing – about how bringing a renewed emphasis to issues like infection control in schools can help us get students and staff back into schools safely and make us better prepared for similar challenges in the future.

At the same time, we’re also thinking about how this increased focus on student health and safety might also present an excellent opportunity to advance some of our other long-term goals for creating healthy and productive learning environments.

We believe that our responses to the pandemic can help create the next generation of learning environments.

Why is this an opportunity? Because so many of the new challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic actually have significant overlap with some longstanding issues in the field of K-12 learning environment design. We have long been focused on indoor air quality, for example, which has obvious connections to our pandemic response efforts. Issues of space utilization, technology in the classroom, and schools’ role in the broader community have similar connections to both the immediate crisis response and ongoing trends in education design.

Here are a few specific areas where we think our immediate response to, and learnings from, the pandemic are likely to enhance longer-term efforts to create outstanding learning environments for every student.

Indoor Air Quality
COVID-19 has made people everywhere think more carefully about the air that we breathe. How is it being filtered? How many times has it been recirculated through this space? We’ve all come to view wide-open areas with fewer occupants as healthy and safe, while smaller, crowded spaces are perceived as riskier for disease transmission.

Increased filtration is an obvious near-term response. For example, we have seen a move toward schools upgrading to MERV 13 filters. Over the longer term, we predict that this new attention to air quality will also accelerate the trend toward increasing ventilation and incorporating more outside air into the system. Designers and engineers had already begun a shift away from relying too heavily on a tightly sealed building envelope as a conservation tool. The pandemic gives us another reason to find ways to incorporate more outdoor air into indoor environments while still reducing energy consumption.

Flexible Spaces
Building flexibility into school facilities has made good sense for many years. It allows educators to adapt to changing learning models quickly, prepares administrators to respond to shifts in area demographics, and simplifies the use of facilities for community activities. The pandemic has added a dramatic example of how flexible facilities can also help address an ever wider range of unexpected future challenges.

We expect that the things we’ve learned in 2020 will push architects and administrators to take an even broader look at what constitutes flexibility in school facilities. This will lead to a beneficial questioning of some outdated models and age-old limitations on how we plan, build, and utilize facilities over their lifetimes. Rather than every facility being designed to fill a tightly prescribed role, look for more facilities that can be modified or adapted to meet a wide range of future needs.

Rethinking Collaboration
The pandemic hasn’t changed the value of collaborative learning environments. These environments are still relevant – and in many cases even critical – to effective learning. What has changed is what it will take to facilitate collaboration in a world where COVID-19 protocols may dictate smaller groups and limited face-to-face contact.

By integrating classroom technology with reconfigurable pods or other flexible spaces, we can make it possible for small groups of students to communicate with others within the facility or even students in other locations. This will deliver the benefits of collaboration, while still providing the safety that comes with small groups and physical distancing.

Once established, these systems have the potential to pay educational dividends long after we have beaten the pandemic. Integrating technology-based collaboration into facilities opens the door for in-depth interactions between diverse students from across local communities or around the world. It also gives students an opportunity to take advantage of emerging opportunities presented by augmented or virtual reality coursework.

Access to Technology
Technology’s role in the response to the pandemic so far has been complex. Schools that are incorporating distance learning into their response are seeing the importance of robust technology infrastructure. Some are also imagining new ways to enhance classroom technology to deliver remote lessons even more effectively.

At the same time, we are also seeing the limitations of remote learning. Some of these challenges, especially for younger children, are easy to imagine and not unexpected. Perhaps more concerning, however, is how clearly the use of distance learning has highlighted our persistent digital divide. Some districts lack the resources to implement or manage remote learning programs, and many students nationwide lack access to technology that will allow them to attend classes from home effectively.

This is a challenge that goes far beyond the current situation. Even as remote learning returns to its supporting role in K-12 education, lack of access to technology will continue to prevent many students from reaching their full potential. If the highly publicized challenges faced by many families during the pandemic raise awareness of the digital divide and drive a more aggressive search for solutions, that will be an important positive result of this difficult situation.

Rapid-Planning Response Mechanisms
School administrations have well-established systems in place for dealing with long-term planning, and have more recently put extensive resources into developing ways to handle immediate crises, especially related to safety and security. Many schools, however, were less equipped to quickly address the kinds of medium-term facility needs presented by a challenge like COVID-19.

For many districts, the process of preparing facilities to reopen is proving to be a learning experience. One that will almost certainly inform their response to similar challenges in the future. By “pressure testing” a system for balancing the needs of students, staff, parents, and all levels of government in a rapidly shifting environment, districts have developed insights and strengthened lines of communication that will be ready to address a wide range of facility and policy challenges long into the future.

Schools in Society
Along with highlighting the digital divide, pandemic school closures have cast a bright light on the critical role that schools play in the everyday lives of students, families, and communities. School closures have reminded society that schools are places where many young people get their most nutritious meal of the day and where some access crucial social services. And witnessing the challenges that working parents face when their children no longer have a safe place to go during the day has given us a dramatic reminder of how important schools are to our country’s economic life.

We don’t think it’s too optimistic to hope that some of this will lead to a growing respect for schools as essential institutions. Institutions dedicated to the fundamentals of learning, yes, but also institutions that play a critical role in the physical, mental, and economic health of children and families.

As we write this in October, the situation remains fluid, and we are almost certain to see a few more unexpected twists before COVID-19 is behind us for good. We’re already looking forward, however, to leveraging some of the momentum created by the pandemic response to address some longstanding and elusive goals. And we believe that our responses to the pandemic can help create the next generation of learning environments.