With nearly $190.5 billion has been earmarked for helping schools cope with the ramifications of the novel coronavirus pandemic, some leaders are eyeing the use of those funds for related school construction projects.
In 2020, Congress passed two relief bills provided nearly $67.8 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, in March, and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, in December.
Those funds were eligible for COVID-19 construction projects, but schools had a more immediate need: putting them to use for technology, PPE, staffing and short-term changes that could get kids back to school.
“Oversimplification of the CARES Act has been a little tough on answering the construction question,” said Danny Carlson, associate executive director, policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “It was an immediate finger in the dike to get devices to get through the school year.”
The recent passage of the American Rescue Plan, which adds another $122 billion in K-12 relief funds, may add an opportunity for school leaders to focus on using federal money on construction projects.
“Schools can use this opportunity to think three, five, 10 years down the line. Schools need to be thinking about how changes could better prepare them for weathering something like this in the future,” Carlson said.
The way Novi Community School District Assistant Superintendent RJ Webber sees it, post-COVID-19 school construction and redesigns will employ more “empathy” in the design process from school leaders.
“The way we think of empathy is about being kind to a person,” he said. “In design, the point is to think about the users’ — the students and teachers — needs. Every decision should be put through the test of, ‘Does this help the teacher? Is it flexible, and does it make people feel comfortable?’”
Here’s a look at what that might mean in future school design.
School design experts anticipate touchless systems will become a minimum standard for schools rather than a luxury. Accessories like touchless faucets and toilets and automatic door-openers are commonplace in restaurants and retail stores, but are often the first options cut from a school construction budget when funds get tight.
Advanced technologies such as VR and AR will also allow students to engage in “hands-on” activities without touching anything. At Community Consolidated School District 59 in Elk Grove, Illinois, Superintendent Art Fessler said his district is looking at renovating its media centers. The project’s designs focus on creating a technology-rich environment with features like writable walls, laptops and other devices.
“We’re trying to look at ways that collaboration occurs in person and how we can design spaces that are tech-rich to amplify what we’re doing,” Fessler said.
Bringing the outside into schools
Air circulation and HVAC systems have topped the safety priority lists of school leaders, educators and other stakeholders for returning to in-person learning.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) design teams have recommended a variety of methods to provide cleaner air. Among them: increased fresh air access, upgraded filtration, bipolar ionization and, in some cases, UVC treatments, according to Brandi Rickels, an architect with Lake Flato Architects.
“We believe the greatest impact COVID will have on school facility design will and should be a renewed focus on connecting to the outdoors,” she said. “Operable windows, opportunities for direct access to outdoor learning environments, exterior circulation paths, as well as increased fresh air from HVAC systems will improve the health and wellness of students and teachers.”
Leveraging community knowledge
CCSD 59 had already approved an extensive HVAC and roof replacement project before COVID-19 hit. The project was ready to go out for bids when news of the pandemic broke.
Afterwards, the district revisited the design plans with a new lens. That included determining if recommended MERV-13 filters were compatible with their existing system and hearing from community members, according to Fessler.
When the district learned some of its HVAC systems didn’t have the capacity for those filters, project engineers provided options for retrofitting the system. Fessler also heard from community members who knew hospital filtration systems. All of that information was taken into account before work started.
“It was a great opportunity to remember how important it is to utilize all of your resources,” he said. “Sometimes in education, we don’t have the knowledge about all that is available commercially. Working with consultants, contractors and constituents in the community along with our own research provided a lot of information.”
Flexibility rules the day
Before the pandemic hit, schools were moving away from “sage on the stage” lecture-style teaching and redesigning learning spaces to promote collaborative learning. Sitting in groups didn't align to social distancing guidelines, so classrooms returned to row seating. But Callie Gaspary, a principal architect and educational facilities specialist with Mosaic Associates Architects in Troy, New York, expects design trends to continue prioritizing flexible spaces.
“Now that students can really take their learning anywhere, they will make greater use of comfortable spaces that provide an opportunity for a change of scenery that many schools have been investing in,” Gaspary said. “The ability to relax while learning makes the school day less rigid and more enjoyable.”
The ability to pivot from group learning and play to a more singular learning space will be key. Flexible furniture to facilitate group or individual activities; individualized storage to keep supplies separate and accessible; and the use of technology can provide for group activities while keeping students at a distance.
“Schools will continue to invest in spaces that incorporate movable walls, flexible furniture and seating that supports a range of uses from one-on-one to small group to class or community meetings, as the functional use of every space is leveraged,” she said.
In a year that didn’t have many bright spots for schools, one has emerged: Empty schools allowed approved building projects to move more quickly.
Before the pandemic hit, the West Valley School District in Yakima, Washington, approved a construction project that included demolishing and rebuilding two elementary schools. The project was slated to take two years, but both schools are now likely to be ready for fall, according to Superintendent Mike Brophy.
“We have not made any adjustments to the design plans based on the pandemic,” he said. “Our instructional technology director made sure we had all the cabling, wiring and wireless hubs possible to allow for flexible learning spaces.