Designing for Infection Control in Schools

At most U.S. school districts, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the 2020-21 school year into turmoil. Districts are concerned about student and staff safety and the possibility of becoming a vector for increased spread in the general public. This concern has led to a patchwork of closures, schedule changes, and facility modifications across the country.

As students have made their way back into classrooms in many parts of the United States, the urgent nature of this crisis has led to a necessary focus on short- and medium-term responses. Getting students back into classrooms meant finding actions that could be taken right away, with available resources, in an environment where we are still learning new things every week about the nature and behavior of the threat.

These immediate responses have included a mix of operational changes, new rules, and “quick fixes” to facilities, such as:

  • Physical distancing of students in classrooms
  • Encouraging frequent hand washing
  • Increased facility cleaning and sanitization
  • Reducing crowding by controlling flow in hallways
  • Utilizing outside spaces where possible
  • Requiring facial coverings
  • Monitoring students for symptoms
  • Accommodating a mix of in-person and remote learning
  • Erecting physical barriers between teachers and students
  • Adjusting HVAC controls to allow for increased outside air
  • Increasing air filtration by upgrading to MERV 13 filters

As we move through this pandemic, we will eventually reach the point where some of these emergency measures are no longer needed. One thing that we will be left with for much longer, however, is a sharper awareness of the dangers that infectious diseases pose in our learning environments.

Some of this new, longer-term awareness may grow from a need to fight the lingering presence of COVID-19, along with a desire to be ready to fight possible future pandemics (Coronavirus or otherwise). There will also be a greater familiarity with how all types of illnesses can spread through schools and communities.

The pandemic has reaffirmed that schools are an essential and irreplaceable part of American society and reminded us that they can be called upon to function under a variety of challenging circumstances.

We believe that there are several areas where the design of learning environments will see the impact of this longer-term focus on infection control. Some of these are more-permanent versions of the short-term tactics we are currently deploying, some are expansions of existing pre-pandemic design trends, and some are new directions inspired by our recent experiences.

Handwashing and Sanitation
One of the many things we have learned in recent months is that many of us don’t wash our hands as often as scientists recommend. This is doubly true of young children and teens. And while there is growing evidence that COVID-19 is spread more through the air than through contact with surfaces, that isn’t the case with all viruses. In fact, extensive research in healthcare facilities has shown that frequent handwashing or sanitizing can limit the spread of a wide range of potential illnesses.

As hospital architects have done for years, school designers will now start to look more closely at how we can place sinks to encourage better hand hygiene. In addition to preparing us to fight future pandemics, this also has the potential to decrease absenteeism by reducing the transmission of everyday bugs, seasonal outbreaks, and illness-causing bacteria.

Air Handling and Ventilation
Many schools today are looking for rapidly implementable ways to beef up their filtration levels and bring in more fresh air from outside. New construction or renovation is likely to build on these short-term solutions, balancing the need for energy efficiency with a desire to improve indoor air quality and remove all kinds of potentially harmful particles.

Adaptable Spaces and Furnishings
The need for schools to temporarily reduce the density of students in the classroom and expand teaching into other campus spaces has reinforced the value of agile classroom spaces and flexible furniture systems. The pandemic has reaffirmed that schools are an essential and irreplaceable part of American society and reminded us that they can be called upon to function under a variety of challenging circumstances. Building in a level of flexibility can help prepare them for these challenges, whatever form they might take in the future.

Support for Remote Learning
Accommodating the need for quarantined students to learn from home has been a significant headache for many teachers, parents, and administrators. One thing we’ve learned is that while modern classrooms are already very good at allowing teachers to bring the outside world in, most aren’t equally well-configured for allowing the teacher to broadcast what’s happening in the classroom out to students at home. Look for future classroom technology packages to integrate capabilities that help teachers deliver lessons more effectively when some or all of their students are at home.

We’ll also be on the lookout for innovators who can create solutions – technological or otherwise – that will make remote learning more equitable for students from a wide range of backgrounds. Efforts to bridge this technology gap will have benefits that go far beyond preparing for future pandemic-related quarantines.

School Health Facilities
COVID-19 has shined a new light on the role of school nurses. Many of the nation’s schools don’t have a full-time nurse on their staff, and we will have to wait and see how the pandemic changes the overall role of healthcare providers in the learning environment. As facility planners and designers, we will be looking for ways to work with these professionals and create spaces that help them protect the health of students. Should their offices provide space for quarantining symptomatic students, for example, or should we build in the ability to accommodate rapid screening for future outbreaks?

Germ-Resistant Surfaces
Thorough, regular facility cleaning and handwashing are still going to be the keys to preventing illnesses that are transmitted via contact with surfaces. The current pandemic, however, has renewed interest in the use of antimicrobial materials for schools. Widely used in healthcare settings, these materials are currently less common in learning environments. As their use grows, we will continue to work with clients to monitor their benefits, safety, and potential applications.

The past year has been an unprecedented situation, at least in our lifetimes. It has been a challenge, but also an opportunity. By exposing society to a type of risk that many of us had never fully imagined, the pandemic has given us fresh insight into a previously underestimated danger. More importantly, it has given us an opportunity to take this new knowledge and create strategies, facilities, and other infrastructure that will make us more resilient and ready to adapt more quickly to similar threats in the future.