Renovating public schools has taken on new urgency as students go back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Construction management can play a critical role in expediting improvements that lower the risk for students, their teachers and their families. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to making K-12 school facilities safer.
Even before the crisis, schools have been in need of renovations. Half the nation’s school districts need to upgrade or replace mechanical systems to meet current standards, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) said in June 2020 study. While sorting out the operational issues in bringing pupils safely back into classrooms, districts’ spending priorities must shift to renovations that limit the spread of pathogens.
In our design, program management and construction management roles, McKissack has recommended an approach flexible enough to handle the unique circumstances of each building, and work within the long-term capital plans of local governments. Commercial office space presents the same basic design consideration—the fewer people in a building,the less risk. Even so, the age of school buildings, the age-old routines of the classroom and the tender age of students make the choices facing schools particularly fraught.
Clearing the Air: Mechanical Systems Need a Fresh Look
Mechanical systems are a prime example of how program and construction management fit into post-COVID school planning. Heating and ventilation upgrades can help by taking in more fresh air to circulate through the school, while filtering particles from the conditioned air.Improving indoor air quality is a must, especially since so many schools are compromised; 2 in 5 systems in the GAO study needed to upgrade HVAC systems in at least half their schools.
McKissack considers many solutions to improve indoor air quality, including portable air filtration units and whole-building systems. Higher-quality air filtration systems are a starting point. Newer heating and ventilation systems are designed to capture smaller particles, and air filters with a MERV 13 or higher rating have proven effective at trapping airborne viruses. Yet high-efficiency filters won’t fit older furnaces. Even retrofitting furnace racks for MERV 13 filters could make these mechanical systems work beyond their capacity, unable to circulate the right amount of air for a space.
Opening windows can bring in more fresh air, but humid air can encourage mold and mildew growth—bringing with them indoor air quality issues for children with asthma and other conditions. Meanwhile,conditioning outdoor air raises operating costs.
Ultraviolet light in duct work or ceilings has been used for years to control molds and pathogens in hospitals, schools and child-care centers. Innovative technology also gives us new HVAC solutions like bipolar ionization,which neutralizes viruses and makes them easier to filter out, or the dry peroxide air disinfectant systems that control mold in some science labs and locker rooms. These systems can be costly, though, and if suddenly in high demand they may not be immediately available.
Classroom Options Matter in Design Decisions
To reopen schools, administrators must make sweeping procedural changes in a short period. As program and project managers, McKissack helps school districts determine and implement necessary space modifications. The design team can propose ways to make operations more practical.
School guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that it’s safer to keep students together in smaller groups with the same teacher throughout the day, with students remaining 6 feet apart rather than attending full classes,sharing supplies and mixing between periods. That advice leads to a host of operational issues:
· How do students get in and out of the building?
· Should schools stagger days and hours of operation to limit exposure to the virus?
· At lunchtime, can meals be brought to classrooms or eaten outside?
· Can music instruction, science labs and other specialties become portable so it can come to students?
· Can class periods be staggered to manage hallway use?
· What’s the cleaning protocol for classroom desks, floors, washrooms, kitchens and other spaces?
Once these details are settled, design professionals can review buildings’ physical attributed to make a host of decisions. Should washrooms have hand sanitizers, hands-free lavatory fixtures or new toilet enclosures? Does the nurse’s office need partitions to isolate students, or more direct access for parents? Are portable classrooms an option to lower class sizes? If a gym needs to become a makeshift classroom,are the lighting, ventilation and acoustics appropriate? Such concerns have led many schools to continue their online learning into the new school year, buying more time to make necessary changes.
Program Management Makes Most of COVID Funds
Given the many issues that must be remediated, budgets weigh heavily in COVID-19 mitigation plans. No one planned to remodel for the coronavirus, so renovations will have to come from either operating and maintenance funds or long-term capital plans. Long-term funding is especially challenging in districts where 75% or more of students come from low-income families. In the GAO analysis, there are 1.5 million more students in high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts, and high-poverty school systems spend nearly one-third less per student on capital construction projects.
Whatever the state of a school district’s finances, construction management can push COVID-related work to the front of the line and do the most good at the least cost. Many districts will refocus their existing maintenance and capital spending toward COVID-19 mitigation, while others will look for new funding. Program management services in either case can assess the condition of school facilities, develop cost estimates, compare repair and replacement costs and help districts set immediate and long-term priorities.
Many school renovations will prove worthwhile long after COVID-19 has been contained. A building that has limits in place to combat coronavirus spread can help keep kids healthy during flu season. New drinking-water systems can address the risk of not only pathogen transmission but also lead poisoning. A flexible classroom setup can accommodate not only social distancing, but also different group learning arrangements.
As a construction management partner for urban school districts, we know that many older schools will need significant renovations. Setting priorities will be a challenge. The coronavirus has exposed how we should be smarter about our children’s learning environment. We’re ready to contribute to that transformation.