Safe public K-12 schools should be a basic right for all students, yet these past few years have shown our nation that we have far to go on this front. In 2021, a stunning 2021 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that half of our nation’s K-12 school buildings are in such disgraceful disrepair that they need major upgrades to qualify as merely “good.” In May 2022, a horrific school shooting showed us—yet again—we may need to start with completely locked doors and comprehensive safety plans and procedures, and our hearts are heavy as we make this point.
Yet we are an architecture, engineering and construction management firm, so while we hope for effective solutions to school violence, we can only offer effective solutions to the many physical issues that plague our K-12 schools. Issues range from poor ventilation to asbestos contamination to unsafe drinking water, President Biden has consistently noted—especially for schools in underserved areas. This begs the obvious question: How did we get here?
Gross disinvestment in school infrastructure.
In fact, many of our nation’s K-12 schools are in such dire shape that the ASCE gave public school facilities at D+ in its 2021 infrastructure report card. Over 50% of school districts needed to replace multiple building systems (from HVAC, power and plumbing to safety, security and fire protection) and 16% had not assessed their building needs in more than a decade, a 2020 Government Accountability Office report showed.
Faulty School Infrastructure Impairs Students and Increases Educational Inequities
Obviously, these buildings can and will seriously compromise student health. But substantial research shows underinvestment in school infrastructure negatively impacts not only student health but also educational outcomes, Brookings noted in January 2022 . Schools with poor air quality or exposure to pollutants lower student attendance, increase suspensions and dropout rates, decrease student achievement, negatively impact test scores and more. Long-term, these issues contribute to our nation’s shameful health and wealth gaps.
How can we change the equation? At McKissack, we’ve executed award-winning modernization programs for some of the nation’s largest K-12 school districts, including the District of Columbia Public Schools, Baltimore City Public Schools, the Los Angeles Unified School District and Chicago Public Schools. Currently, we’re working on large modernization programs for the Dallas and Fort Worth Independent School Districts.
From our experience working in K-12 schools, here are the five most important school infrastructure upgrades that all districts need to execute with immediacy:
1. Prioritize projects that improve air and water quality systems: The pandemic gave us the most definitive reason for upgrading aging mechanical systems, namely stopping the spread of COVID-19 and future pathogens. Better ventilation and filtration lead to better indoor air quality and is key to keeping students healthy. While some school districts were able to upgrade their HVAC systems early in the pandemic, there is still much to do—especially with students back in school and mask mandates ending. The same holds true for aging water lines; many school systems still contain significant levels of lead in plumbing fixtures that can pose dangers to child development and should be ameliorated.
2. Enhance school safety and security: In response to increased school violence over the last few years, schools are enhancing safety features, such as installing bulletproof glass in windows, doors that can be locked from the inside, security surveillance and controlled entry systems and metal detectors. Locked entry doors and centralized points of access to a building, monitored by security guards and camera systems, are critical in an effective security system. Metal detectors are now common in most schools. But adding the devices requires more than merely installing them; it’s also necessary to allow spaces for students to queue up while waiting to go through the school’s metal detectors, and for their bags and backpacks to go through the system, so this can entail a significant design plan and call for expanded entries in some facilities.
3. Optimize school spaces for social distancing and flexibility: Flexible spaces became more important when planning the safe reopening of schools after COVID-19. That effort continues and includes wider corridors, new or enlarged lobbies, modular wall partitions and mobile furniture and technology carts that can be used to create portable classrooms to support smaller student-teacher class ratios. Additionally, the pandemic influenced school design and interiors with the addition of restrooms adjacent to classrooms, hands-free lavatory fixtures and ultra-violet light in ductwork to limit exposure to and prevent the spread of pathogens. School design experts anticipate touchless systems will become a minimum standard rather than a luxury. Modernization also entails bringing stairways up to code and making sure that building doorways, ramps and restrooms are ADA accessible and compliant.
4. Execute upgrades to ensure tech equity for all students: The pandemic made it clear that virtual learning situations will be part of the future, but the digital divide turned into a wide-open abyss for many students in the last two years. Not only must we improve technology infrastructure in school buildings, but we also must ensure that all students have access to the technology they need to experience optimum learning opportunities. To reach that goal, schools need to improve power infrastructures and bandwidths to support a flexible learning environment, greater connectivity and an evolving technology. The mechanical rooms of older schools are often too small to handle these changes, making the modernization necessary to achieve sustainability a project that often calls for expanding a facility.
5. Taking sustainability to the next level: Over the past decade, new schools were built to LEED standards. As part of that effort, many have turned to the use of geothermal HVAC systems when possible; they require expansive acreage, such as that offered by athletic fields, for the installation of multiple wells to heat and cool the air. But more recently, there has been a push toward net-zero schools. Leading the way is the Arlington Public School District in Virginia, which boasts the largest net-zero school building in the U.S. Two D.C. public schools are also working toward net- zero status, and a new Alexandria City public high school at Minnie Howard School in Virginia, which now goes through grade seven, will be net zero. Servicing net-zero schools is not without a learning curve, however; it can be a challenge to finding the right balance between maintaining comfortable temperatures and maximizing energy efficiencies to keep the building at net-zero status.
While the nation’s public school systems were hit hard hit by fallout from COVID-19 over the last two years, there’s a silver lining: this difficult time has made it clear that districts can no longer defer much-needed school modernization programs. This hurts children, teachers, families and ultimately our entire nation as we lose ground in terms of achievement and competitiveness on the global stage.
As we emerge from the pandemic, school buildings that support students’ and teachers’ health and safety are finally getting their just due: updates, upgrades and the infrastructure needed to prepare our children for a productive future. At McKissack, we are proud to be part of the solution for so many diverse urban school districts. Contributing to the betterment of K-12 schools is not just an honor, it’s an obligation to our future generations.