The Back To School Facilities Toolkit Helps Visualize School Design After COVID-19

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The executive director of the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School describes how Gensler, PBDW Architects, PSF Projects, Situ, and WXY Architecture + Urban Design are reimagining school facilities and processes in an era of social distancing.

This article was published by The Journal of the American Institute of Architects by Katie Gerfen.

Summer break is officially underway in most school districts across the country, and educators are shifting their focus from the pivot to emergency remote learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, to what back-to-school might look like in the fall. It is unclear, as of now, whether students will be able to return to full-time in-person instruction, or whether some combination of in-person and remote teaching will be required. But what is certain is that resuming in-person instruction will require changes to the physical school environment to accommodate social distancing and new procedures such as temperature checks before entry.

To that end, the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School in Brooklyn, N.Y. partnered with the Urban Projects Collaborative consultancy and five design firms—GenslerPBDW Architects, PSF Projects, Situ, and WXY Architecture + Urban Design—to create a Back to School Facilities Tool Kit. The 101-page document proposes ideas and precedent for planning and design strategies to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 during arrival and departure, as well as in classroom settings. This first iteration is a jumping off point that will be refined over the course of the summer to generate the best possible solutions by the time school reopens in the fall. And in the spirit of transparency, the school has made the document available for download both for analysis by the school community as it goes through a period of public comment, feedback sessions, and iterative charrettes, and as a resource for other schools considering similar precautions.

Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School is a network of public schools in downtown Brooklyn that serve roughly 1,100 students in grades 6–12. ARCHITECT spoke with the school’s co-founder and executive director Eric Tucker about how educators are preparing for the return to school this fall, and how architects can bring design solutions to bear to create equitable, safe environments for all students going forward.

What are some of the concerns that you and other educators have about returning safely to in-person teaching environments?
Eric Tucker: How we make sure that it’s safe and healthy to get into the classroom is one of the big areas of concern. The more that we dug into that, we recognized that there were entry and egress challenges. Also, we’ve all been living a life of social distancing since March. Functionally, we have to rethink how classrooms, hallway, bathroom, and the core school facilities would work in order to provide high quality and compliant special education services, but also in order to have credibility with families that the return to school was appropriate and safe.

This is somewhat uncharted territory. How are you identifying these concerns and figuring out how to address them?
There is some guidance, but a lot of it is operating at a 20,000-foot level. It’s important to have the guidance that says we have got to maintain physical distancing, that we need to have the infrastructure and the resources to do contact tracing, and that we need to deploy public health tools to prevent the spread of the virus. We need to make sure that the school is prepared and that those things are enforced. But ultimately, we realized that a lot of the problems that need to be solved at a more tactical 100- or 500-foot level.

We’re thinking about what a classroom could look and feel like where you need to take temperatures before students can come in? Where would adults and students stand in a socially distanced line in order to accomplish all of the bases outlined in the guidance that we’re all reading and looking to. Our basic assumption is that we needed to begin designing real, practical solutions—even if the first versions are imperfect. We need to be vulnerable today in order to have a safe and healthy return to school.

How did the process for the tool kit get started? And how did you connect with these firms?
We have a long-term relationship with [New York-based real estate consultancy] Urban Projects Collaborative. Initially, we both began to volunteer time and effort to think through what it would look like to return to school. Almost everybody involved has young people in their life and some kind of understandable anxiety about what returning to school will look like this Fall. We each, in our own way, are impacted—as owners, representatives, and educators—and we are aware of the obligation that school has to protect safety, health, and welfare. We began iterating on some of our ideas and quickly recognized that we don’t know what we don’t know about an effective plan, and that if professionals from different disciplines come together to prepare for a healthy return to school, it’s much more likely that we will produce plans that are worthy of students, families, and teachers. So Urban Projects Collaborative brought together GenslerPBDW Architects, PSF Projects, Situ, and WXY Architecture + Urban Design. We were grateful for the opportunity to benefit from their expertise and design work.

What is the school hoping to get out of the tool kit? How do you plan to implement it?
We needed a working example of what it might mean for Brooklyn Lab because we wanted to benefit from feedback from teachers, parents, and students when they saw the plans about what their concerns were. Version one is the foundation for that broader conversation that will integrate a range of perspectives from school community stakeholders so that we’re able to refine plans and produce a version two, and perhaps a version three, prior to school doors opening.

Is the goal to create planning solutions that don’t require physical retrofit of the space? Or is that necessary?
We don’t know what it will take to keep students and faculty safe this fall. But we presume that it will involve significant shifts to both a facilities plan and a usage plan, including things like lower-density classrooms, adjustment to signage, adjustment to transition plans, and arrival and dismissal procedures. But it may include adjustments to or retrofitting physical features.

One of the things that we are very clear about is that many public schools in America will require a front porch. One of the most compelling ideas from this planning process is the idea that scaffolding plus a range of other features can create inviting public space in front of schools that would allow students and faculty that are queuing to enter the school to have shelter from the elements and space for the procedures—the sanitizing, temperature taking, and the arrival and welcome—to occur in an appropriate way.

Are there areas where design can help find creative solutions to some of these new problems?
Classroom design is an important area for design thinking because so much of how we think about school in America is premised on one teacher to 30 students. Within special education, it’s premised on two teachers to 28 students or three teachers to 12 students. So much about how we approach education is about the ratio of adult to students within a particular room, and social distancing has fundamentally shifted how that works. We’re in the middle of a design charrette right now that’s deeply focused on special education compliance, including the maximum occupancy of particular classrooms and how that connects to how teams of educators serve young people.

There’s also a lot to redesign when it comes to arrival, bathrooms, and hand-washing stations. What is the flow of bodies in, and how can we re-imagine the classroom for social distancing in combination with anytime, anywhere participation. In the business world, there are rooms where participants from all over the globe can be a part of the same meeting at the same time. Classrooms are now having to sort through what it looks like to have some students who are present physically and others who are choosing to attend remotely due to medical fragility or some other reason.

Equity is a core tenet of your school. How is it addressed in these design considerations?
We serve a student population with a wide range of learning and support needs, and we believe deeply that designing for the students who are most vulnerable is the way to get the best design. We have talked, for example, about how to conduct speech therapy or work with the student who is hard of hearing when all the adults are wearing masks. How will students who struggle with social cognition understand teacher and peer cues? How do we ensure that all students have physical access to facilities such as hand washing stations? How can we comply with social distancing if we have students who require physical prompts or support?

There’s an old cartoon where a student in a wheelchair asks a school staff member to shovel snow off the ramp. The staff member says: “I’m busy shoveling the stairs for all these other students. When I get done shoveling the stairs, I’ll shovel the ramp.” And the student in the wheelchair says: “Well, if you shovel the ramp, all of us can get in.” You have to shovel the ramp first. Too often we design for the 80% and then think that we’ll retrofit for the 20%. We have a deep-seated belief that all young people deserve access to public education and that it’s critical that we design for equity when we plan to return for the fall.

What do you think architects need to be considering differently about educational environments to make successful spaces going forward, whether it’s retrofitting existing spaces or designing new ones?
The pandemic has laid bare a lot of our deep-seated problems, from economic inequality to racial disparities in health care. School, like many other institutions, is having to rethink how it approaches its plans for the fall, given the amount of uncertainty about what comes next. We think that there is a new conversation around our obligation to make sure that the physical, emotional, and psychological safety of every student is a priority. Schools and design teams will have to be intentional about who has a seat at the design table. Listening is critical—conducting empathy interviews, virtual design sessions, focus-group town-hall surveys with a diverse range of students, and engaging families and faculty in the design process. Preparation probably matters more than whatever the plan is.

I believe that it’s really important in this moment to look for bright spots because so much is scary and uncertain. But there are ways of approaching school that are improvements on what we were doing before. It’s possible that we’ll come up with designs that are more equitable and more consistent with our priorities. But that will require a radical inclusion of voices that might not normally be included in the design process.