Five Considerations Before Reopening Campus

By Rebecca Celis and Ena Murphy

The uncertainty surrounding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic makes it challenging for college and university faculty members, administrators and facility directors to create a plan for the return of students to campus this fall. Most campuses are currently releasing their plans—usually with a mix of online, in-person, and blended instruction—with campus-specific approaches to scheduling courses and determining who’s on campus and when.

As architects and designers, we’re helping schools navigate these unknowns by creating tools that can quickly and efficiently model multiple scenarios, allowing school administrators to react nimbly to changing inputs and criteria. The following five suggestions summarize key considerations in this process, published by HGA in the new guide “Returning to Campus: Creating Healthy Environments for Learning:”

  1. Be nimble and flexible

By now, the 6-foot social distancing circles applied to classroom environments, which result in de-densification and reduced capacity, are familiar diagrams to us all. But too often, these diagrams don’t take into consideration the circulation patterns into and out of rooms or consider the impact that schedule changes — adding more sections or increasing the hours of operation — have on the overall capacity on campus. A flexible and nimble approach examines alternative teaching locations, including repurposing non-traditional spaces on campus for teaching.

  1. Think outside the classroom

Much of the focus has been on the interior of classrooms and other learning spaces, but the campus environment includes many other building types. Mapping pedestrian traffic and movement at the campus scale and pulling in data sets like staffing numbers can predict potential hot spots of social interaction. How might services be redistributed on campus to minimize the need for faculty and students to travel to receive them?

  1. Leverage your facilities manager

Building systems – including air handling equipment – can play an important role in mitigating the spread of the virus between occupants and improving indoor air quality. How does the campus re-opening plan look out for the health and safety of the new front line of essential workers, including cleaning staff, on-campus clinic staff, and residence hall staff? Understanding which buildings are equipped with the technologies to support filtration and minimum outdoor air rates may have an impact on which buildings are re-opened on campus, and when.

  1. Don’t forget about your faculty

Much of the narrative in recent months has been about keeping students healthy and well on campus, leaving many faculty members to ask what is being done to protect them. On campuses with traditional-aged college students, faculty members may be more at risk from the impacts of the virus than many students, based purely on demographics. Even if students return to campus in-person, many faculty may need to have the option for continued remote instruction.

  1. Communicate cultural change

We are in the middle of a great cultural experiment that is re-inventing societal norms and creating new patterns of social engagement. To be effective, a change to societal norms — including the adherence to mask wearing and the ability to self-regulate physical distancing requirements — requires buy-in on the part of those affected by the change. Involve your community in the creation of policies that affect campus life, and allow them to develop new ways of engaging with one another to maintain and build community.

The decision on how to safely reopen campus buildings for teaching and learning is complex, especially as new research is published daily on the risk factors involved. Leveraging design and engagement tools to model multiple scenarios quickly allows campuses to react nimbly and be prepared. Campuses that adapt strategically to a new, blended learning environment will be prepared to address the uncertainties in higher education for years to come.

Rebecca Celis, AIA, is vice president at HGA, specializing in projects for higher education. Ena Murphy is a planner at HGA. For more information on HGA’s research on the impact of the coronavirus on higher education, visit