Sustaining Student Learning and Success

A Holistic COVID-19 Response Strategy

Written By: Jill Ackers and Jay Litman, AIA
Graphics by: Enrico Giori

As we release our strategies for a Full Return Scenario our experience working with various public school districts over this summer along with our research has made a few issues very clear. Our three return scenarios: Full Return, Alternating/Hybrid Return, and Flex/Remote Return should not be considered as three distinct choices but rather as a single return strategy. Therefore, we are now presenting the three scenarios graphically as a single fluid process for reopening and maintaining our schools as healthy places for teaching and learning.

It is also our hope that you embrace the idea that all solutions should not only find ways to mitigate infection rates but create new kinds of learning spaces that engage your students. The approach presented in this final release will transform learning environments into innovative 21st century learning spaces, moving away from the traditional “cells and bells” configuration, while working to minimize infection rates. In the end, it is our belief that all solutions must create a safer school environment that enables all learners to thrive!

The strategy of deploying all three scenarios in an agile and flexible system will provide the framework for you to develop reopening options that work best for your school district. Consider this a new toolkit with which to build possible solutions and consider the vision we have illuminated.

All scenarios require strict discipline in individual factors and environmental factors. The environmental factors are outlined in this release as well as a link to the technical brief prepared by our partnering MEP Consultants: Creative Environment Corporation (a division of Thielsch Engineering). The individual factors include the school department protocols of contact tracing, health questionnaires and individual temperature taking as well as parents observing their kids, notifying schools of sickness of their child or of children they found to be sick.

Over this Summer we have focused our development of suggested strategies for reopening schools on the three scenarios. Each scenario is based on the understanding that the COVID-19 virus is principally spread as an aerosol contaminant, much less so as droplets. The vapor cloud will rise to the ceiling in each classroom and then settle down. The concentration of viral particles is the key to how effectively it will spread in a classroom. This can be mitigated by everyone wearing face masks, dilution of the viral particles by aggressive ventilation of the air volume with fresh outside air, by filtration of the classroom air with a HEPA based air filter at the ceiling, and if possible, filter systems that use a UV-C chamber system. 

It is clear we cannot do all these things due to time and money, but focusing on the individual and environmental factors is something most school systems can certainly achieve.

It is important to understand that the transmission rate of COVID-19 is affected by individual behaviors and environmental factors, which are listed below and incorporated in our “Day in the Life” scenario.

Based on the factors we have presented, here is how we envision a transformative spatial configuration for a set of rooms in the Full Return Model. The classroom set up is based on FI’s “Learning Communities.” In a Learning Community, spaces are shared to allow for a range of learning activities and for teachers to work collaboratively. Ideally, each group of three classrooms would connect through shared internal doors typical in most school classroom arrangements. Each classroom would be set up for a specific set of learning modalities. For instance, in one iteration, the middle classroom would act as a collaborative learning commons. The classroom on the left could be set up as a project-based set of workspaces and for presentations. The classroom on the right might be set up as instructional space and for group work.

There are endless possibilities with such an organizational strategy. For instance, one room could be set up for reading related activities while another room might be set up to better support social-emotional learning activities. In Middle and High School, this arrangement would support interconnected STEM or STEAM curriculums.

The next part of this strategy to minimize potential COVID-19 infection involves establishing 4-6 collaborative student groups or “Stable Groups” within each classroom cohort.

The CDC recommendations for classroom modifications results in a return to a 1950’s arrangement of desks and chairs, all in rows and facing forward. As well-meaning as this advice is, it does not recognize what is happening in the classrooms of today’s schools nor is it a good strategy to minimize infections. As discussed, we are proposing a paradigm shift from the typical one teacher for each isolated classroom to a more collaborative Learning Community model. Instead of 20-25 students packed into each available 700-900 SF classroom, we propose joining at least three contiguous classrooms into a richer and more flexible learning environment. Not only would each classroom be outfitted for a different combination of learning modalities, the students assigned to each teacher would be grouped into 4-6 collaborative teams. Each student team would remain together to minimize a sudden mass infection when a child within a team becomes ill. The “Collaborative Team” concept represents an uneven grouping of students, within the existing three collaborating classrooms. 

While students would maintain the 3-foot/1-meter distance recommended by the WHO, each project group would maintain a distance of 6-10 feet apart. The teacher is able to utilize a direct lecture mode, or circulate from team to team. This arrangement will also give time for teachers to quickly isolate a potentially sick child and perhaps quarantine the suspect collaborative team while offering greater distance and protection for the other students. This approach will transform learning environments into innovative 21st century learning spaces, moving away from the traditional “cells and bells” configuration, while working to minimize infection rates.

The “Collaborative Team” or “Stable Group” concept would result in the zoning of each classroom into a series of learning modality zones. Each zone would consist of a specific furniture grouping designed to support a different set of tasks and group work. For instance zone B1 would tend to support ad-hoc levels of conversation such as brainstorming and discussion while zone C4 would be more supportive of group presentations. It’s important to remember that each classroom cohort would have access to all the zones within their three-room Learning Community. However, the collaborative teams formed from each classroom of students would remain together for the fall semester.

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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