Schools, Pandemic, and Moving Forward

Schools, Pandemic, and Moving Forward

Schools have reopened. But it’s been to a different school experience than pre-COVID-19. As officials and administrators scramble to find pathways to deliver learning during the pandemic, some reopenings have been more successful than others. Some schools have opened campuses only to close them again, reverting to online classes. The rest wait anxiously to find out if they’ve controlled virus outbreaks while pivoting to online or hybrid modalities.

We are vitally interested in the educational sector as designers, planners, alumni, and parents. At Manning, many of us are working from home while we care for our school-aged children. We know firsthand the stress of trying to keep our children safe and keep them learning, all while we juggle work responsibilities.

While grappling with our own children’s school experience, we met (virtually) to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational buildings. What emerged was a picture of the very real challenges facing K-12 schools, community colleges, and institutions of higher education. But we also looked for silver linings. What can we learn from this pandemic to steer toward a better future even once the crisis is past?

Given the risks of another pandemic or other future disasters, many of the solutions schools are adopting now will be important for the long-term horizon.

  • Certified hospital-grade scrubbing every day
  • Intermediate cleaning throughout the day between shifts
  • Medical screening stations
  • Disinfection and sanitizing stations
  • Availability of fresh air
  • Enhanced filtration and performance of HVAC systems
  • No shared water fountains
  • Floor markings and signage to identify social distances and circulation patterns
  • Staggered lunch and break times for smaller groups
  • Staggered class schedules to reduce numbers in the halls
  • Rotating morning and afternoon shifts with half the students attending each
  • Rotating days, perhaps requiring a six-day school operation
  • Altered summer and holiday calendars for more class time
  • A mix of virtual and on-campus classes for “hybrid” learning
  • A mostly virtual scenario where schools, libraries and “pandemic pods” adapt to provide a safe environment for students whose parents work and therefore need care
  • Technology in the hands of every student: laptops and internet connectivity
  • Virtual general assemblies and large lecture classes
  • Less density throughout locker rooms, gymnasiums, classrooms, labs, cafeterias, playgrounds
  • Scheduled time outdoors
  • Wider hallways

The scenarios are legion, but these are some of the physical and operational changes that designers can explore with administrators to find the best strategies for each school.

Aligning Strategies
Like many of the strategies, widening corridors is more easily accomplished in new construction than in existing buildings. Land-locked, urban schools and those with budget constraints must rely on a tailored mix of operational and physical remedies. For instance, staggering and alternating schedules limits the numbers of students at any one time, allowing greater social distancing.

Each school has its own mix of factors that must be assessed in developing the design solution: budget, programs and curricula offered, the condition of existing facilities, and site availability, to name a few. In most cases, it appears a hybrid learning approach is here to stay. In a hybrid approach, some students attend classes in person while others take part remotely online. This can be achieved with students opting for either online or in-person class, or a combination of the two.

The pandemic has generated a spike in online learning with classrooms closing for 1.2 billion students worldwide. However, online education was on the rise even before the pandemic. The World Economic Forum reported in April that globally $18.6 billion was spent on electronic education with projections to reach $350 billion by 2025 (

The pandemic has caused learning to pivot to virtual modes while brick and mortar schools adjust to health concerns, making the availability of appropriate technology an urgent matter. Schools are in a race to adapt where technology considerations are at the forefront of the shift. Smart classrooms fitted with the ability for remote learners to log in and participate, apps for phones and computers, and the availability of devices and internet connectivity for all students are some of the most important strategies to keep schools viable.

Well-being Is The New Gold Standard
We can also broaden our view of health and safety to encompass well-being.

While hotels have touted luxury, schools have emphasized safety, and most sectors have leaned toward environmental sustainability, the idea that has emerged coalescing these goals is well-being. As human beings, we need safety, but well-being goes a step beyond. According to Psychology Today, well-being is “the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity. It includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, a sense of meaning or purpose, and ability to manage stress,” (Tchiki, 2019) and includes multiple aspects such as emotional, social, and physical well-being.

The WELL Building Standard, developed by the International WELL Building Institute, focuses on well-being in new and renovated buildings. The standard addresses air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind, and offers certification for projects.

An example of a building element designed to strengthen well-being is operable windows with the technology to sense when the environmental conditions are optimum for opening or closing the windows. The technology of such features would likely require added expense, training of staff, and monitoring. Arguments can be made that the well-being of students is worth the cost. Practically speaking, however, not every school will be able to implement all or even some of the advances that can be designed. Disparity in access to resources could widen the gap between financially secure schools and those that are not, while all students deserve health and well-being. An approach similar to current environmental sustainability standards, LEED certification, can serve as a guide for how well-being becomes part of a design solution. Not every project achieves LEED certification, but many incorporate measures of sustainability. Passive energy elements that are responsive to the local climate—shading windows from direct sun exposure for example—can be implemented generally without a negative budget impact in new construction and significant renovations. Even if additional cost is incurred in a retrofit situation, energy savings can off-set the expenditure relatively quickly.

In the case of integrating well-being, those elements that have low-cost and high-benefit impacts should be included in all possible cases. Some of these easier to apply solutions may include:

  • Bringing the outside in with views to the outside and natural lighting
  • Plenty of natural landscaping
  • Natural ventilation
  • Highly visible mental health strategies and easy access to counselors
  • Access to tele-medical and mental health
  • Scheduling outdoor activities

The Disparity Conundrum
Further hampering the implementation of a virtual solution is the gap in available resources. Many families don’t have the resources to make virtual education viable. First, parents and caregivers who work would have to work from home to be able to supervise their children. That’s not an option for many. Even in the case where a parent can stay home with their children, they can’t always help with studies or other activities. Many families cannot afford the technology required for adequate virtual learning, like computer and reliable internet connectivity. And many families rely on schools for food.

In New Orleans, public schools have distributed laptops and wi-fi hot spots for internet connectivity. Students are wired and prepared for online learning, which is a big part of the equation.

Will fear of dense urban environments drive flight to the suburbs and rural areas, fundamentally changing the demographics of school districts? Will resources at lower-income, inner-city schools be even further strained? Can we find solutions that improve struggling schools rather than further deplete them?

The answers to these questions will determine the future of our schools. Designing now for that future is not a luxury, but an urgent necessity.


This pandemic has shown us that change is inevitable. It’s how we change that will determine our future. We have the opportunity to assess what isn’t working, search out answers to health and well-being questions, and make plans that work for the well-being of all. We look forward to continued research and developing solutions for better schools that serve students well into the future. Whether schools and businesses are virtual or traditional, we will need to find ways to connect—we hope with strength, integrity, and compassion.

Tchiki, D. (2019). What Is Well-Being? Definition, Types, and Well-Being Skills. Psychology Today.

Image credit to Wikimedia Commons: