Back to School 2020

Back to School 2020

June 24, 2020 | Insights

Back to School 2020

Everyone has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future. – Steve Jobs

Going back to school this fall will be an unprecedented time of challenge and opportunity. What we do now in the face of our adversity will lay the way we manage in the future. Keeping students and staff safe in schools from a deadly pandemic is foremost in everyone’s planning. It is an enormous task that in many aspects seems undoable, and yet we all must and will find ways to do it.

Health and well being, which have always been design considerations, are now being appreciated more and more as essential elements of school architecture. The COVID-19 crisis presents immediate challenges for school building design professionals to develop targeted and effective modifications to facilities which were never built for social distancing and other pandemic health control measures.

Guidance from the CDC released May 7th, is relatively general and leaves much in the hands of state and local leaders. Throughout New England, detailed guidance is being formulated by state agencies at this writing for release sometime early this summer. Other independent associations, such as the American Federation of Teachers are promulgating their own detailed guidelines.

Between federal, state, and private interests, guidance is diverse, overlapping, and evolving. Ultimately, it may be a good practice for individual school districts in consultation with local health and building officials to issue or adopt their own guidance that comports as much as possible with other guidelines, local resources, and scientific evidence. In any case, there is much to consider in planning for schools to reopen. Design professionals should be an integral part of the teams solving these emerging problems. The following are among the more important issues.

Testing and Tracing
Health experts agree that this information is fundamental to the control of a highly infectious disease. School officials should work with local health departments to ensure that adequate testing resources are available. Should an outbreak occur, established protocols should be followed for notification, isolation, and if appropriate, the closing of a school for a period of time. San Diego schools have taken a strong position on testing and tracing which can be found here 

Design professionals could help by offering guidance on the best use of space for temperature checks or other forms of COVID-19 screening should schools decide to assess each student or adult upon entrance to the school. Entrances to school buildings should be configured to ensure visibility and security, provide adequate lighting and air flow, permit social distancing, and avoid long lines and bottlenecks.

Physical Controls
On May 6, 2020, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) issued, “Re-occupancy Assessment Tool V1.0”, for public schools and other commercial buildings. The AIA’s stated position is that:

Architects and allied professionals are in a unique position to coordinate a range of mitigation strategies that, in aggregate, reduce the risk of exposure to and transmission of COVID-19 within non-health care settings. Our goal is to promote best practices that protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public while creating opportunities for businesses, schools, restaurants, and other non-essential facilities to provide services.

In addition to other guidance, this document includes the following short list of physical issues that need to be addressed to prepare schools for safe re-occupancy during this pandemic.

Site and site arrival

♦  Convey recommended guidance for ride-sharing services, delivery services, and … (student transportation) services that define  cleanliness  standards and protocols.
♦  Provide area for … (student, parent, and visitor) social distancing exterior queuing not subject to winds.
♦  Provide temporary or permanent outdoor sun/rain covering to allow queuing outside of front door.
♦  Ensure the designated building/space ingress and egress pathways support clearly separated directional traffic that also provide ADA accessibility.
♦  Consider an exit separate from the entrance.

Building envelope

♦  Utilize natural daylight when possible.
♦  Install drive-thru and/or pick-up service windows.
♦  Utilize operable windows for outside air intake if possible.

Fixtures and furnishings

♦  Install physical barriers such as clear plastic sneeze guards.
♦  Utilize temporary, movable partitions to subdivide large working spaces.
♦  Reduce density and/or increase spacing of furniture.
♦  Stagger workstations where possible.
♦  Replace manual door locks with touchless RFID entry system.
♦  Provide cleanable transparent films over surfaces as elevator buttons.
♦  Consider installing antimicrobial coatings/surfaces where human touch is required.


♦  For buildings experiencing extended closure, flush and test potable water systems.


♦  Increase ventilation and air changes.
♦  Create negative air pressure.
♦  Consider a fixed maximum number of occupants per HVAC zone.
♦  Change HVAC air filters prior to re-occupancy.
♦  Clean ducts that have been dormant.
♦  Keep systems running longer hours, if possible.
♦  Prioritize fresh air intake versus recycled air where possible.
♦  Monitor and maintain relative humidity levels, preferably to RH 40-60%.
♦  Disable demand-controlled ventilation (DCV).
♦  Consider the use of portable room air cleaners with HEPA filters.
♦  Consider installing UV germicidal irradiation (UVGI) in mechanical ventilation paths or in upper-room applications to indirectly treat air through convective air movement.
♦  Consider utilizing ultraviolet C (UVC) during non-occupied hours for sterilization.
♦  For larger building, check cooling and water tower condensate for bacterial growth.

“New” Capacity
Schools must calculate their new operating capacities based on their adopted social distancing guidelines. This is easier to determine at the elementary level than middle and high school levels, due to the variability in both class sizes and scheduling options at the upper levels. Additionally, due to these unusual pandemic circumstances, there may need to be some negotiation with vested parties such as parent groups, teacher unions, other associations, and private contractors. The Wheeler School in Providence has developed a simple, useful approach to determining “new” capacity.

Capacity Process

♦  Assess classroom capacity
♦  Analyze schedule to establish demand
♦  Establish shortfall
♦  Develop strategies to make up the shortfall

Capacity determination should include consideration of all areas in the school that might positively or negatively impact students’ ability to learn and the staff’s ability to work.



Classroom Furniture Layout

When exploring a layout for a classroom it is necessary to start with the basic elements to maintain social distancing between the students. This diagram provides 6’-0” of space between the students with each student within an imaginary 7’-0” diameter circle.


Working with the 7’-0” circles there are two basic options for an efficient layout, the square or diagonal grid

Determining which furniture should be placed where in a classroom is a necessary first step in establishing classroom and school capacities. Your school architect can provide you with COVID-19 safe classroom diagrams for your specific buildings.

With social distancing, most typical classrooms will accommodate about one-half of a traditional class of students. These diagrams address a 30’x30’ classroom with the CDC recommended social distancing of 6’ between students.

The first diagram provides space for twelve students and a 6’-0” deep area for the teacher. There are a few options with this layout:

• The students could be moved closer to the teacher(the circles not overlapping the teacher’s space) to create a storage area for furniture against the rear wall.

• Aisle space for students to move between desks is not indicated. Due to the limited time it takes to pass by other desks it should not be necessary.

• For discussions between students and teachers, a plexiglass screen could be added at the desk.

It is worth exploring different layouts with your architect if you need more students. This layout of the same room shows accommodation for 14 students. The Teacher’s area is reduced and there is still available space for furniture storage.

Your actual classroom size, shape, furniture, fixtures, and instructional needs will vary greatly, calling for many different configuration options.


Within these layouts it is possible to reconfigure areas for group activities. The back of the classroom can accommodate two groups of four students as shown to the right.

Larger groups become more of a challenge as additional space is necessary between the students as shown with this group of six. Also, with distance, louder voices are needed for communication.

Your school architect can help you determine the best and most efficient arrangements for your needs. Drawings of school buildings are often available electronically making the design transactions quick and easy. It is important to examine, discuss, and lock in working classroom layouts as that is the first step in determining capacity based on available space.

Strategies for Addressing Shortfall
Every school district will likely find that they will have a shortage of space. Fortunately, there are as many approaches to addressing this problem as there is imagination, but there is not much time. This issue must be addressed immediately. Options generally fall into two broad categories – finding additional spaces and scheduling options.

Additional Spaces
During the initial concerns over our hospital systems being overrun, we saw remarkable new construction of temporary hospital units. DRA’s design team is ready to respond to potential classroom space shortages in the same way. Other creative approaches include:

Convert Existing Spaces
Crowded schools have been doing this for years. My first office as an administrator was a converted storage room. The real office was used for small Title I reading classes, etc. Since learning will now be moving away from gathering large groups of students together, look for large spaces like a Gymnasium that could be modified into several classrooms spaces, or a cafeteria or multipurpose room that might be divided up if students are eating in their classrooms. There may be other options for more efficiently using existing spaces that an architect could suggest or help assess.

Portable Classrooms
Some districts may have a few portables that are not being used for instruction and could be put back in service. If not, it may be too late to find and install portables, but it might not hurt to check.

Vacant Retail Outlets or Offices
Due to the downturn in the economy this may be a real option in many communities. A school architect can provide a quick estimate of the cost and feasibility of converting a store or office space.

Town Hall Annex
Local municipal leaders may be aware of unused, town owned spaces that could be temporarily used. Don’t be surprised to find some unlikely space that could be prized by a teacher for special science, business, or other courses.

Many churches have additional building spaces that could be borrowed or rented for use during the week. Separation of church and state need not be a problem for this

This might seem a little bit imaginative, but a London architecture practice has done an interesting study on this that may be seen here.


Alternate Scheduling
Some districts are considering having students attend on alternating days or weeks. This could be manageable for the students, especially if they are online the days they are not at school. But this may be very difficult for parents to manage if they are employed and not working from home.

Years ago when LAUSD had a severe school capacity issue precipitated by universal implementation of full-day Kindergarten, many districts turned to alternate schedules, like 45 days on – 15 days off. By overlapping groups so the buildings were in use every week all year long they greatly increased capacity.

Another commonly deployed strategy is a split or dual schedule. One-half of the students attend from early morning until noon. The other half go from lunch time until late afternoon.

There are many options for alternate scheduling. Find one that works best for you.

Total Online Schooling
Some parents may be interested in a 100% online schooling-at-home option. Many parents are working from home during the pandemic, making this a more viable and perhaps preferable option. It could help increase capacity by reducing the number of students present in a classroom.

Hybrid Solution
Particularly for students who excel at working alone or online, there may be benefits from an opportunity to learn the way they learn best at home while attending school occasionally. A couple of afternoons a week at school would allow them to develop the important social and emotional skills gained by engaging with peers and adults. A hybrid solution could also promote opportunities for students to be educated in a more personalized, customized fashion.

In summation, while going back to school in 2020 promises to be extraordinarily challenging, there are creative solutions that can lead to positive outcomes. The major factor facing educators will be following social distancing guidance to keep students and staff safe in school buildings that were never designed for that purpose. Planning will be key and quick action is needed. Taking the following approach should help.

♦  Agree on a set of guidelines to follow
♦  Audit space available based on social distancing criteria
♦  Determine expected enrollment
♦  Gather class demand registration information
♦  Run trial schedule
♦  Assess shortfall of teaching spaces
♦  Decide on strategies for addressing shortfall

We at DRA Architects are ready to guide and assist you throughout your re-opening process. Together we will discover what you can do to implement the best equitable teaching and learning practices during this challenging health crisis.

There is no education like adversity. – Benjamin Disraeli

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