COVID-19: an opportunity to reexamine educational environments
This isn’t just about virus-free schools: international forum unites school leaders and planners to consider the potential for pandemic to inspire positive change within school settings
The topic that now dominates discussions among US school administrators is how to safely reopen schools while keeping kids safe. However, Legat Architects’ latest EDEngage session, which assembled an international collection of academic administrators and educational planners, revealed that if educators play their cards right, COVID-19 could result in positive change that goes far beyond virus-free students.
The forum enabled Midwestern US school leaders to share their thoughts about coronavirus and ask questions of cohorts in Asia, Australia, and Europe who have successfully reopened schools. What the conversation revealed was beneficial and, in many cases, surprising.
The first revelation was that there is a pressing need for students to return to school. Perth, Australia-based learning environments educator, researcher, and designer Peter C. Lippman said, “Kindergartens and elementary schools have to open because students need social activity and play for the developmental process.”
“This is the time to take a deep breath and think about school differently.” – LeeAnn Taylor
Dr. Elizabeth Matthews, assistant professor of psychology and early childhood education at The City College of New York, concurred. “Every week children are not in school, there are ramifications educationally, socially, and emotionally.”
Another key takeaway from the forum is that we are at a time during which school districts can go beyond short-term fixes driven by COVID-19 to redefine the spaces within their schools and therefore enhance curricula.
LeeAnn Taylor, chief school business official at Hawthorn School District 73, put it best: “This is the time to take a deep breath and think about school differently.”
Magnus Blixt, organization and operations developer of primary school at the Uppsala Municipality in Sweden, pointed out that financially motivated opportunists have taken advantage of pandemic-driven panic and fear to capitalize on the situation. However, others with the best interests of students in mind are looking at this as an opportunity to provide students with more choice and more mobility.
Younger People at Less Risk?
German health and kinetics scientist Dr. Dieter Breithecker is all for the return of younger students to school as soon as possible. He cited research from Germany showing that younger children are much less likely to contract or deliver COVID-19.
“Every week children are not in school, there are ramifications educationally, socially, and emotionally.” – Dr. Elizabeth Matthews
Elizabeth Matthews stressed the importance of better understanding the extent to which the disease affects children. She too commented on research coming out of Iceland and London revealing that children have minimal impact in spreading the virus.
In late April, Norway became one of the first countries in Europe to reopen schools to children ten and under. Having seen no significant uptick in coronavirus cases within schools, the country is now on the verge of ending social distancing measures in schools. Similarly, Reuters recently reported “‘No evidence’ reopening of Finland schools has spread virus faster.”
Then there is Sweden. “Primary schools in Sweden have never closed,” said Blixt, “but of course measures have been taken to have more social distance and better hygiene regulations, where possible.”
Reports show that this business as usual approach resulted in a higher death rates among Swedish adults than those in neighboring countries. However, according to SFGate, “Public health officials in Norway and Denmark have come to agree with Sweden’s open-door approach to schools, saying that may not have been necessary to close them for children under the age of 14 because of limited evidence that they contribute to the spread of the disease.”
Coming Back in Waves and Learning Better at Home
Forum participants discussed how overseas institutions have welcomed back students since the onset of the coronavirus issue. In most cases, the students have come back gradually.
According to Peter Lippman, Perth parents were given the choice to send their children to school leading up to the Easter break. During that time, essential workers were really the only ones sending their children to school. Following the two-week holiday, some parents sent their children back to school, while others opted to keep their children home. Two weeks into the semester, most students in Perth had returned to school.
He indicated that Australian schools looked to reproduction rates by region to make the determination whether to reopen. A reproduction rate of 1.0 means that one person will infect one other person, so the lower the rate the better. If the number is below 1.0, said Lippman, schools can look seriously at reopening. See current US reproduction rates by state.
Across the continent of Australia, Dr. Terry Byers, director of the Centenary Library and innovation in learning at the Anglican Church Grammar School in Brisbane, Queensland, has been fascinated by the way that students have adjusted to distance learning. “They were more in control of learning because they had to be.”
Though Byers acknowledged that it was much easier for students to learn in the classroom, he was impressed by their ability to collaborate and manage their own study groups while distance learning. Some of the remote discussions were not about school, but the connection was critical.
“Parents and educators should have more empathy concerning how children prefer to learn.” – Dr. Dieter Breithecker
Dieter Breithecker made a case that many parents fail to grasp children’s need to move around. Instead, when children get internet assignments, parents expect them to sit at the dining table and do it. But there is a problem with that. “Children do not like to sit at the dining table and do their work,” said Breithecker. “They like to be on the floor, to stand, to go out and get fresh air.”
Parents should consider, according to Breithecker, how to design their environments so children can carry out their natural behaviors. “Parents and educators should have more empathy concerning how children prefer to learn. They can learn on a balcony, in a garden, or in a neighborhood forest.”
One forum participant stated that many US districts are considering the two-group hybrid model: Group A goes to school Monday and Tuesday. Deep cleaning takes place Wednesday. Group B comes in Thursday and Friday. More deep cleaning occurs over the weekend. Noting that children do better with a daily routine, she asked about the effectiveness of bringing in half the students in the morning and half in the afternoon.
Robin Randall, director of preK-12 education at Legat Architects, said that districts are reluctant to adopt this method because of the cleaning challenges it presents. Lippman added that the scenario adds more stress on many parents because of transportation issues. He suggested one way of easing the burden, especially for high school students, is having an advisor check in with students twice a day to inquire about project progress. Such a strategy responds to the need for a ritual and maintains the connection with the educator.
Another question that came up during the forum was how schools can prepare for reopening from a facilities standpoint. Moreover, how should schools respond if a student does contract COVID-19?
Tianye Zhou, Beijing native and associate at Legat, walked the group through what schools in China are doing: daily temperature tests, mandatory facemasks, handwashing stations with mats that clean shoes, one-way traffic in corridors, limiting classrooms to no more than 15 students. If schools do not have enough room for the max of 15, transparent barriers are installed at each desk.
Another way of maintaining virus-free school environments is limiting visitors. For instance, Lippman said that parents are only allowed on campus to pick up or drop off their children. Any meetings with parents occur via video conferencing.
Byers said that if a student in his school was suspected or confirmed to have the virus, the student would immediately be put in isolation and a testing regime would come in. If the student tested positive, the school would shut down, all parents would get their children, and the school would go into deep cleaning mode for one to two days. They would then trace who that student had been in contact with and test those individuals. The school would remain closed until everything was cleared.
But these strategies are just the tip of the iceberg. Robin Randall sees the return to school as an opportunity to drop the industrial revolution mode of education (i.e., forcing students to sit in seats) and adopt more child-centered setups . . .
Shaking Up Education
Lippman stated that one of the most effective means of achieving social distancing among students and creating change is the “decluttering of classrooms” for accommodating smaller groups. He recommends removing as much furniture as possible to open up classrooms and give kids more seating options.
LeeAnn Taylor confirmed the assertion. A few years ago, she was involved in a district master plan that showed second graders only used their desks for 20% to 30% of the day. “This might not be the time to buy a bunch of new desks,” she said.
“Kids want to have choice . . . they need to move.” – Peter C. Lippman
Even more critical than rearranging furniture, said Lippman, is reorganizing different areas of the room. “Kids want to have choice . . . they need to move. Rows of desks and chairs? That doesn’t work. It never worked.” He advised putting tables and chairs against the walls and “giving the corners back to the kids.” Lippman also argued that achieving innovative learning environments does not require building huge new schools. On the contrary: older schools can be modified to create zoned learning areas that enable “kids to brainstorm, separate into smaller groups, and then return to the larger group.”
The Student at the Heart
Dina Sorensen, co-chair of the research task force for the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Architecture for Education, mentioned that many US towns and districts have adopted different approaches to dealing with the pandemic.
Fortunately, she said, organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), and the CDC have established guidelines for air quality, HVAC system, and spatial responses to COVID-19. Sorensen sees the current situation as a unique opportunity for “design to bridge those guidelines without forgetting the student at the heart of education.”
She urges districts to think about how students can return to school “without the curriculum hitting them in the face immediately.” Instead, she said, the learning community should come back together and tell stories about their experiences with the pandemic . . . much like the participants in the EDEngage forum did.
The African proverb cited by Magnus Blixt is highly relevant: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
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