As we face current events in our nation that include endemic contagions and random violence, K-12 school buildings must finally get their just due: new health and security provisions to help counter these enduring risks as well as updates, upgrades and the infrastructure needed to future-proof buildings. This involves replacing old systems and infrastructure to improve their sustainability and increase their ability to support a truly safe and flexible learning environment, as well as to adapt to rapidly evolving technology.
Yet because of uncertainties due to random violence, which and happen anywhere, and COVID-19, from emerging variants to supply chain issues and more, school priorities are constantly changing, forcing program managers and construction managers to be flexible in their approach to projects and to adjust expectations among school systems and other stakeholders. What worked a year ago might not work now, let alone a year or two from now.
McKissack has the nation’s largest urban K-12 project management and construction management practice. We’ve designed and executed award-winning modernization programs for some of the nation's largest K-12 school districts, including District of Columbia Public Schools, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Chicago Public Schools. But now we’ve entered a new phase of work in K-12 school buildings as we undertake modernization programs that respond to the challenges of not only ongoing safety issues and this pandemic but also others problems that may arise going forward.
Top 5 Issues Program and Construction Managers Face Today in K-12 School Buildings
Current K-12 modernization programs we are working on for the Dallas and Fort Worth Independent School Districts and the Los Angeles Unified School District have given rise to new requirements and challenges in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The five most pressing issues we are facing forward are:
1. Working around supply-chain lags: The pandemic choked all manner of supply chains, including those for K-12 school modernization programs. We are experiencing delays because of these issues, and we expect this to be a continuing challenge. AEC firms need to adjust client expectations accordingly. According to a recent construction industry survey, some 90% of construction firms are experiencing delays because of supply chain problems. While 61% have turned to alternative suppliers for materials and 48% have specified alternative materials or products, it’s clear that program and construction managers must work with clients and subcontractors more closely than ever to explore new options while keeping firm control on schedules, risk, quality and budgets.
2. Dealing with labor shortages: Most subcontractors face problems hiring workers now. That can lead to higher costs and schedule overruns. It also can mean more accidents and injuries on-site because workers may have less experience. Or there may be fewer “hands” available for complicated tasks that require multiple workers to be accomplished effectively. For the owners we represent, that can mean long-term issues such as errors, liability exposure and higher maintenance and repair cost as poorly installed equipment ages. AEC firms need to include such concerns in their risk management time estimates and budgets.
3. Managing challenging schedules: When schools were operating remotely, construction projects remained on schedule without a hitch. But now that students have returned to school campuses, construction workers must plan around school-day hours and students’ scheduled activities. For effective, efficient project management and construction management, it’s important to understand each school’s operations to ensure the work does not disrupt learning and other student programs. Moreover, as districts wrestle with how to help student catch up on lost learning, more complications may arise, such as summer school classes that fill more classrooms. In some cases, offsite prefab modular construction can move schedules along.
4. Future-proofing tech needs: The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the ways K-12 students and schools use technology. Laptops and high-speed Internet were necessary for effective and equitable remote learning, and there’s no going back. They will continue to be key for both in-classroom and blended teaching. Not long ago, modern school buildings were hard-wired for technology and older buildings were addressed on an “as needed” basis. Now, everything must be wireless, and students must be able to charge laptops anywhere. Power requirements have shot up and the mechanical rooms of older schools just aren’t big enough. But more significantly, tech needs will continue to increase and evolve. Think about learning in the metaverse. We don’t know yet what infrastructure that will require, but we do know we need to think about how to make school buildings flexible enough to meet those requirements. In many instances, if not most, this will involve additions to existing K-12 school buildings that do not have large enough utility areas for new and/or updated tech hubs.
5. Building resilience against future shocks: AEC firms can’t prevent shocks such as mass shootings and the Covid-19 pandemic. But we can use the lessons from these occurrences to help our clients become more resilient in the face of future shocks. For instance, just as recent events put insufficient security systems in the spotlight, which can be strengthened, the pandemic has also put school indoor air quality in the spotlight. Working with our clients and the rest of the project team, we can ensure there are complementary systems—both efficient mechanical systems and windows that open—to maximize health and safety under all conditions. Making sure that construction specifications call for safe, low-emissions products can help keep air clean, which increases school safety and security. Energy-efficient sustainable design that respects local climate conditions can bring the outdoors in when weather allows, while also buffering operating budgets against rising fuel costs when it’s time to run the HVAC. What other redundancies are possible within budgets, either in individual school buildings or across school districts? We can work with clients to identify solutions that fit their needs, and thus build in resilience.