By Steven G. Siegel and Daya Irene Taylor
Scores of schools have decided to close in the U.S. once again, and numerous districts are postponing plans to reopen in the face of the skyrocketing covid-19 cases. In considering the reopening of school buildings, what steps can you take to create the safest environment possible for your students, teachers and administrators? Current public health concerns presented by the pandemic pose a challenge to the natural and desired collaborations that are central to teacher-student interactions and the learning process. As a result, educators and architects are having to rethink ways to enable learning while addressing the health, safety, and welfare of occupants in school environments. While working with clients on existing and in-design new projects, Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc. has identified remedies to mitigate health risks within school buildings and create safer spaces for school occupancy by focusing on five major categories: Policies and Procedure, Site Arrival, Building Envelope, Building Interiors, and Building Systems. Although this list is not comprehensive, we provide guidance to incorporate these strategies in each category below.
POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
Although not directly related to the physical building, adjustments to school policies and procedures complement changes in design and building operation and are equally important when mitigating viral spread in schools. Schools should consider the following recommendations when updating policies and procedures to address health concerns:
- Follow the recommended health behaviors listed in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Considerations for Schools (CDC, 2020) and other local ordinances that are designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and related viruses.
- Educate staff and families when they/their child(ren) should stay home and when they can return to school should there be a personal case or direct exposure to the virus and institute pre-screening and active on-site screening procedures.
- Require proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for all occupants and educate them on how/when to use what equipment as well as washing and cleanliness practices.
- Form a Pandemic Response Team at each school to address site-specific concerns, evaluate actions taken, and lead efforts to implement new policies and procedures.
- Implement a thorough building-wide cleaning and disinfection protocol as well as escalation practices for all areas and surfaces after an identified case.
To reduce congestion and practice safe distance requirements when entering the site, consider transportation schedules, bus configuration and seating arrangements, and arrival from all sources (bus, cars, walkers, etc.):
- Incorporate specific signage to help aid wayfinding and direct traffic to minimize congestion.
- Shift school occupants to areas that are separated by safe distance to coincide with physical distancing requirements and place limitations on parking spaces.
- Expand the area and increase the number of locations for drop-offs and arrivals to mitigate student congestion at high traffic times.
- Reduce congestion by creating additional entrances equipped with temperature check measures.
While areas of concern at the building envelope may be small in quantity, areas such as entrances are crucial to consider. These have the potential for the most contact and infringe on physical distancing recommendations. Some recommendations include:
- Incorporate automatic door openers at select entrances to promote touchless entry, reducing the potential transfer of the virus.
- Install touchless thermal temperature detection systems at entrances that quickly scan all entry visitors to alert occupants of potential threats.
- Maximize use of daylight and natural ventilation to improve environmental conditions and health of occupants.
Primary concerns on the interior is maintenance of social distancing and reducing the need to touch common surfaces. Some options to mitigate the health concerns on the interior are listed below:
- Apply antimicrobial coatings to commonly used surfaces to reduce the threat of contact with contagions.
- Install automatic soap dispensers at wet areas and add automatic hand sanitizer stations throughout the facility to provide occupants several opportunities to sanitize throughout the day.
- Install hands-free door hardware, which allows occupants to traverse the building without contacting surfaces that are typically known to spread contaminants.
- Install temporary, movable partitions in assembly spaces to segregate different groups of people.
- Use transparent partitions to provide required separation while also adding to the feeling of collaboration desired for group educational tasks.
- Restrict directional flow of travel with interior signage and floor decals to help maintain safe physical distancing.
Building Systems encompass considerations for three major sub-categories: Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Systems. Some recommendations for each are listed below:
- Review and balance systems to ensure proper ventilation rates, filtration and fresh air levels.
- Upgrade HVAC unit filtration systems to CDC/ASHRAE recommendations but consider that not all existing systems may be capable of such upgrades without impacting ventilation rates which could be counterproductive.
- Proper humidity levels can help our bodies respond to viral exposures. Maintain healthy relative humidity (RH) inside schools to reduce infection rates. Ideal RH within a building should range from 40-60% but care should be taken to prevent a RH being too low or rising over 60% which can have negative effects.
- Integrate bipolar Ionization technology into HVAC systems, which helps to neutralize particulate matter, bacteria and virus cells, odorous gases, aerosols, and VOCs. These systems can be implemented cost effectively.
- Consider ultraviolet lighting which has been shown to be effective in de-activating many contaminants, bacteria, and viruses. Caution must be taken to minimize risk of skin exposure.
- Install touchless lighting controls that work off occupancy sensors to minimize touch surfaces.
- Clean and flush water coolers and water heaters prior to re-occupying buildings. This may assist with reducing the accumulation of virus-containing debris in the water-supply system.
- Replace water coolers with an automatic bottle-filling station to reduce potential of personal contact with water-delivery system.
- Transform manual plumbing fixtures to ones that are compatible with hands-free operation.
While no one anticipated the level of impact from this pandemic, it is important to look for bright spots and come up with new designs that are more equitable and more consistent with the future learning environment.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Considerations for schools.
AIA, 2020. Re-Occupancy Assessment Tool V1.0
Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc. (2020). Re-Occupancy Assessment: Holmdel Township Schools
Principal Steven G. Siegel, AIA, LEED AP and Project Manager Daya Irene Taylor, Ph.D., RA, bring a wealth of experience and creativity to Spiezle Architectural Group.