Defining the New Normal

Helping Schools Prepare for the 2020/2021 School Year in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The global COVID-19 Pandemic has changed the course of history as it defines the new standards for how we interact with each other in social, business, health and education environments.  Students abruptly ended the 2019/20 school year as the pandemic overwhelmed the country requiring students to instantly change their daily routines as it related to their education.  Teachers who understood their students learning styles and the best means to communicate were now relegated to teaching virtually – some students adapted well to these changes whereas other students struggled.  As schools prepare over the summer to bring students back for the fall, they will be working with new guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), their state and local guidelines.  School Districts are reaching out to their design professionals for assistance and guidance on how to best approach these critical next steps. 

Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates (CRA) has been specializing in educational design for the last 25 years and is working with numerous school systems throughout the Mid-Atlantic for the design and construction of new schools, additions, and renovations.  Our experience with Schools, Healthcare, and  Technology as well as having Fred Withum, Ed. D. on staff as our Director of Educational Planning have been assets on how we develop concepts for this learning re-engagement.  Our staff has been working with our clients, local school organizations and Departments of Education on developing a vision for the fall return of students.  Our focus has been on been on how we modify the design and layouts of schools to allow for social distancing, developing traffic flow patterns in schools to minimize interaction, technology integration for Virtual Learning, Indoor Air Quality, Sanitization and Interior Environments, and access to Hygiene Stations.  The following represent a brief overview of each of these areas and our approach: 

Planning for Social Distancing – School Districts have numerous options to consider this fall with the return of school – specifically determining who comes back to school and how often?  CDC guidelines for safe distancing will require we rethink the spaces within our schools. Social Distancing will have a significant impact on student capacity in all learning spaces. Social distancing reduces a typical classrooms capacity of 25-28 students down to 10-12 students. Even with repurposing large group spaces, total student capacity may be reduced by 50%. Large group instructional spaces such as media centers and auditoriums will see capacities reduced by 60-75%.  Options to be considered include attending one day a week and distance learning, two days a week and distance learning, alternating weeks with distance learning, and extended day. Each option brings different challenges in transportation, capacity, distance learning, technology, sanitation, and staffing. 

Modifying Spaces –  A key issue is understanding how spaces were designed to function and how they may function now.  With significantly reduced building capacities a key consideration is how to repurpose other spaces for teaching spaces. This requires an analysis not only of the available space, but other environmental factors such as task lighting, heating and cooling, and acousticsGymnasiums and cafeterias are examples of spaces that can accommodate several partitioned learning spaces, however they may not have the correct lighting, acoustics or heating and cooling for that number of students. 

Integrating Technologies for Distance and Onsite The conversion to distance learning and the ability to meet virtually had to evolve quickly when schools closed in the spring.  School systems will work on how they enhance available technologies to work in conjunction with face to face learning.  A percentage of students may be learning at the school while the other group learns remotely.  These groups may switch on a daily or weekly routine to accommodate these new learning modalities. 

Interior Environments – Understanding that sanitization after students have attended must occur quickly and efficiently, design will focus on finishes and surfaces that are cleanable.  Discussion include how do we minimize touch points so there are less surfaces that need to be cleaned. 

Safety and Security – With the recent national focus of improving safety and security within our schools, social distancing now presents many challenges from the moment students exit their buses until they depart. While it is recommended to minimize the number of entry points, moving large numbers of students at safe distancing will simply require a greater number of entrances be used and supervised. Modifying entry and exit points and using spaces in different ways requires a thorough understanding of the building codes and security practices. 

CRA is working together with our School partners to analyze options and to develop the safest return possible for students.  The integration of all these key components and the focus on continuing to provide a quality educational environment that allows for Student Centered Learning is paramount.  Please look for additional articles on each of these key design areas and our approach to designing these quality learning environments. 

CRA is a full service architectural, planning and interior design firm that specializes in educational design.  Our mission statement of a “Client Oriented Approach to Architecture” has allowed us to develop long term relationships with our educational clients.  We focus on understanding the student is the center of the learning process and the design of our buildings must focus on this concept. 

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