Pandemic-Proof Schools: How Design Thinking Can Keep Students Safe

The smart school of the future must improve school health and safety with better indoor air and water quality, hybrid learning support and principles of design for learning.
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Elementary and secondary school designers are always learning, and the past few years have been a course in student safety. Tragic school shootings taught us how open spaces can be not only distracting but also dangerous. Then, COVID-19 shutdowns showed that school infrastructure needed to change before pupils could return. Now, with K-12 schools reopening, health and wellness have emerged from the pandemic as pressing safety needs. 

Unhealthy conditions existed in more than half of America’s public schools before the pandemic. Design thinking for schools brings our empathy into the classroom to consider solutions that improve the health and safety of students, teachers and staff. Parents and school boards have a much broader set of student and family wellness concerns. Architects, planners and construction program managers must be part of the change toward truly safe and healthy schools. 

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, half of America’s public schools need major upgrades. In 2017, ASCE reported that 54% of schools needed improvements to rise to the level of merely “good,” and the long lifecycle of capital projects suggests the 2022 report will show only incremental change. Fortunately, President Biden’s infrastructure plan makes safety a priority in allocating $100 million to school construction.

Clean Air + Clean Water = Safer Schools

School safety now encompasses indoor air quality and other environmental factors exposed in the pandemic. Poor indoor air quality disproportionally affects children. Asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism, and nearly one in 13 school-age children has it. Allergens such as dust mites, pests and mold are common in urban school buildings. Deferred maintenance further degrades the air that children breathe and their ability to concentrate and show educational progress.

School construction can support the learning environment by avoiding building or maintenance products that contain toxic chemicals. As under-resourced school districts address physical decay, new construction criteria must specify low emitting materials and finishes that can be maintained with nontoxic cleaners.

Lead in drinking water poses known dangers to child development, but the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has sparked needed testing initiatives. Health and safety measures in some states require regular testing of drinking water in schools, programs supporting voluntary testing in others. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency soon will require community water systems to monitor lead in drinking water at 20% of the K-12 schools and licensed childcare centers in their service areas.

The next step is to replace aging lead water lines, a task that Brookings indicates will go far beyond the $200 billion proposed to remove lead from school drinking water systems and a $45 billion federal investment in water and wastewater infrastructure. The District of Columbia’s DC Water program replaces lead pipes across its construction projects. New funding sources will prime the pump nation wide for more such projects that provide a safer water supply.

Smart School Design Drives Hybrid Learning

Across the post-COVID landscape, K-12 school design will consider remote learning capacity. Teachers will need to keep teaching, and students keep learning, in more resilient environments that combine on-site and virtual activities. Smart leaders need to invest in smart school facilities with IT infrastructures that provide broadband connectivity. Learning from hybrid classrooms, new school designs will be more secure and flexible at a lower cost.

Resilient schools also will incorporate environmental design principles such as daylight harvesting. Skylights and lighting connected to sensors will dim electric light fixtures when natural light is available, a cost-saving tactic that also increases productivity and test scores. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. assessed the performance of students in three cities and found that those in classrooms that utilized daylighting improved their math and reading scores by 21%, compared to those in classrooms that did not.

As we move into a society profoundly altered by the pandemic, design for learning principles will bring remarkable innovations around school construction and renovation. Educational solutions will embrace new thinking about physical structures, technology and the psychology of how students interact, learn and thrive. Schools are the soul of our communities, and McKissack & McKissick's expertise puts us at the heart of their transformation.

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