Flexible Return Strategies

Strategies that flex to the unique needs of students, families, and educators strengthen equity and access. Flexible Return strategies allow schools and districts to design around the right problem: how to support the holistic needs of all people—students, families, and educators—in a way that everyone is safe and in a position to thrive. Regardless of the return model being implemented, designing with flexibility and equity in mind helps create conditions for learners and school communities to thrive. Our strategies are informed using SEL recommendations from Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and incorporates the value of movement for kids of all ages.

In several return scenarios, the majority of students may be engaged in distance learning from home, with the school facility open for locally-sourced reasons. These reasons change from school to school and community to community, so this page is designed to inspire ideas about how to repurpose four significant school spaces. As you consider how to delineate roles to manage teacher workload and mitigate risk, repurposing parts of the school offers educators the option to focus on either in-person or virtual distance learning, as well as limiting potential exposure to the virus across the school community.

Graphics by Enrico Giori

The Flexible Return strategies are not meant to be prescriptive, but rather ways to consider how time and space can be applied locally to maximize flexibility for students, families, and educators – in doing so, schools can focus on equitable solutions where all learners can thrive. 

Library & Common Areas

A school library and common areas can be set up to feel like a home living room—creating comfortable zones ideal for student-teacher-family check-ins, independent learning, and small group collaboration. If appropriate to your local context, this area could serve as a drop-in space for students and parents/caregivers to connect with teachers and peers in a controlled environment. We value designing these environments to be a calm space to foster social and emotional well-being—a place of safety, comfort, and communal belonging. Consider ways to have this space available for students and families who may not be able to access the building during normal school hours. Evening and weekend support could be provided by staff who opt into a restructured role under the right circumstances, allowing for safer and more robust space utilization.

Create a nook where quiet, independent learning can take place in a comfortable environment.
Define a zone for students, teachers, and parents/caregivers to connect and build strong relationships. This could be a place for scheduled tutoring sessions or homework help.
Some students may not have access to devices and/or reliable internet at home. Having a tech hub available, especially if open beyond normal school hours, can strength equity.


Classrooms can become places to host specific learning experiences for students engaging primarily in distance learning. While specialized classrooms already exist in many schools—art room, Chemistry lab, kitchen space, etc.—consider redefining functionality for all classrooms to fit the needs of your situation. Because much of content delivery can be done virtually, start by asking your school community, what kind of experiences and activities cannot be replicated well in virtual space? Then, create safe spaces that align to those experiences and activities. Under CDC guidelines, we’ve found most classrooms can safely accommodate 40-45% of its usual capacity, so think of learning activities that work best in smaller groups, and structure the layout accordingly. Classrooms could be used to support peer connections, like a seminar room or storytelling arrangement.

Interactive seminars can be conducted with small groups of students learning or discussing a topic synchronously. Consider layouts to support specific learning activities like a Socratic Seminar or debate.

Ask Yourself:

What kind of experiences and activities cannot be replicated well in virtual space?

A safe space for learners to socialize, deepen relationships, and share experiences. Find creative ways to incorporate soft seating with blankets, exercise balls, etc. for a social hangout.


When weather conditions permit, taking learning outside can be a great way to decrease risk of virus spread (Mayo Clinic Research ). Look for ways to use the outdoors for active, experiential learning including hands-on & messy projects. If appropriate in your climate, considering using large commercial tents to create shaded areas to set up chairs in a Socratic seminar or instructional layout. Getting outside can also be a wonderful opportunity for mindfulness training, movement, and yoga. Consider encouraging youth to coordinate outdoor activities with safe socially distancing including gardening, nature walks, and art tutorials. This NY Times article describes the benefits of outdoor classrooms and learning. 

Bring hands-on projects in arts and STEM outside whenever possible.

Here to Help:

We at Fielding have designed outdoor learning spaces throughout the world, and are ready to help support you.

There may be large instruction better suited for in-person gathering – like yoga or a science experiment. Setting up outdoor spaces to accommodate this can be a safer way to bring larger groups together than being inside.

Large Indoor Spaces (Cafeterias, Gyms, Etc.)

Large indoor spaces such as cafeterias or gyms can be repurposed as functioning learning communities for the student populations most in need of full-time in-school resources (i.e. no home internet access). Keeping isolated from the rest of the school, the large indoor space can be set up into specialized learning zones to best serve this student population without having to crossover into different parts of the school. The large area may include a centralized zone for the whole student group to gather for projects or instruction, with breakout spaces on the periphery to support different learning needs. Ideally, the large indoor space for full-time in-school students has its own area connected to outdoors to use whenever possible. 

A breakout space for social interactions, playing games, and one-to-one student meetings. Soft furniture, lower tables, and acoustic barriers make this space function well.
Setting up a space for project-based learning depends on the type of projects students will be working on. Set up this area for the activities students will be doing.
A breakout space for small groups of students and teachers to meet and collaborate together. Higher tables and harder chairs makes this more a work zone than a peer to peer area.

Implementation Questions

Find a Starting Point

What learning activities are better suited for in-person learning than distance learning?

Audit Your Learning Spaces

How can you rearrange furniture to create learning zones for activities you identify in question one?

Rethink When Spaces Are Open

Can you spread out facility usage over the daytime, evening, and weekends? Who would benefit?

Return with Equity

How can you prioritize resource access and allocation so all students are fairly & genuinely supported?

Who We Are

Fielding International exists to make the world better by improving environments for learning. As an interdisciplinary team of architects and educators, we partner with school organizations to design learning spaces and experiences that promote student agency, enrich well-being, and cultivate authentic learning communities. With nearly two decades of award-winning educational facilities across 50+ countries, we remain deeply committed to reimagining the future of education alongside the communities we serve.

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