Adjusting Your Buildings in a Post-COVID World


Adjusting Your Buildings in a Post-COVID World

Adapted By Mark Jolicoeur, AIA, LEED AP
Managing Principal

Richard Young, AIA, LEED AP
Senior Associate
This article has been adapted from information produced by Perkins&Will research team of Erika Eitland, MPH, ScD, Brook Trivas and Rachael Dumas.

Not a healthy schools’ moment… A healthy schools’ movement!
The COVID-19 pandemic thrust our schools in a state of instant adaptation. As we evolve to a post-COVID world, we have been forced to open our eyes to student, teacher, staff and community health needs in an unprecedented way — and there is no turning back. We must be proactive and thoughtful adjusting and adapting existing schools for the future. The World Health Organization states “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In 2020, the pandemic illuminated that K-12 schools have a tremendous influence on all aspects of both individual and community health, whether this involves disease transmission or accessing regular meals.

The post-COVID world must recognize we face many issues above and beyond infectious diseases, as in the realities of designing for resiliency, which is the ability for a building to prevent damage and recover from damage (e.g., storm shelters are now required in school design).

Schools act as a central health resource that can support community resilience, both in “normal” times and when unexpected challenges and crises arise. Many agree that climate change and pandemics are inherently linked, and the United Nations expects an increase in the number of animal-borne viruses in the future. However, pandemics are not the only threat our schools have faced. In the last several years, learning communities have lived through measles outbreaks, asthma exacerbations, wildfires and extreme weather to name a few.

Yet, crisis often sparks transformative change and what has been born from recent events may in fact be one of the largest explosions of future thinking that has occurred over the course of human history. It has led us to take a hard look at how we design schools resilient enough to respond to any change. In light of this, we have developed and gathered relevant research and innovative strategies to support future-focused schools. With thoughtful planning and integration, these strategies will help our schools be prepared and adapt quickly to whatever lies ahead.

The pandemic has underscored the need for an equity-focused educational agenda. To that end, if we are to support healthy schools now and in the future, we must confront and respond to the vulnerable students and communities. For example, there are both indoor and outdoor environmental justice concerns influencing the overall health of a school that reflect inadequate siting, maintenance and operations. Recent reports have shown these schools are disproportionately attended by Black and Hispanic students and low-income students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Also, students with pre-existing conditions including physical, cognitive and mobility impairments may rely on schools for the support and stability that cannot be replicated in a virtual learning environment.

Understanding the “Wicked Problems”
The challenges facing our K-12 schools and education systems are examples of what in planning and policy are referred to as “wicked problems.” These are problems that are complex and difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements. These crises come in a variety of forms and are often hard to recognize. Some are global, such as the recent pandemic and others are localized such as extreme weather. No matter the threat, future disruptions to our school communities are inescapable.

We understand planning for problems which are constantly changing and hard to recognize is a challenge. However, thoughtful planning and design can help existing schools adapt and prepare for a future where the only certainty is change. There are a variety of considerations for schools to consider including outdoor and siting, entry and exit, classrooms, building systems, circulation spaces, materials, restrooms and nurses’ areas. These considerations can span a wide spectrum from minor to more significant capital investments.

The pandemic has underscored the critical importance of outdoor learning environments. Studies have shown that students with greater access to these spaces had better mental health, higher test scores and lower chronic absenteeism.1

  • Create accessible outdoor learning spaces with WiFi, power outlets, durable furniture and areas of various sizes. (Consider a nature-based curriculum.)
  • Enforce anti-idling measures to prevent exposure to diesel exhaust that may lead to indoor air quality concerns, asthma exacerbations and the unnecessary burning of fossil fuels.2 Avoid intake louvers near drop off and pick up sequences.
  • Use a land berm to protect the school site from river/creek or lake level rise and flooding events. Specify native, drought-tolerant species that provide habitat for local fauna.
  • Strategically place trees to reduce indoor thermal gains; provide views of nature and maximize daylight during the day as well as during power outages.
  • Employ rain gardens and other “soft” storm water strategies before or in addition to engineered solutions such as underground storage and leeching tanks.

Every day, around 25 percent of Americans enter a school as teachers, students, staff or administrators. Proactively designing learning environments with features that can stem the spread of infection and promote overall wellness can have exponential results. A school’s first line of defense is its entrance. This communal space can assist in preventing the spread of disease, inspire the community and help to keep students safe.

  • Install a track pad at every entrance to reduce outdoor contaminants from soil (lead, heavy metals) that contribute to indoor dust. This can be surface installed or part of a recessed system.
  • Modify entry sequences so that they can serve as both safety and health screening areas.
  • Install touchless hardware technology (motion-activated, foot-activated, voice-activated, etc.). Prioritize bathrooms, nurses’ areas, special education and therapy spaces and shared spaces. (Also provide instructions.)
  • Include hand washing/sanitizing stations at entrances and exits.
  • Employ Crime Prevention through Environmental Design strategies and maximize visibility (CPTED). (Consider single point of entry and vestibule control access.)

To navigate what comes next, we need to create multi-faceted classrooms that offer increased control of and full access to technology. As education continues to evolve, accelerated by the pandemic, we are leveraging research to better understand how learning environments can support students holistically.

  • Continue to provide technology to make classrooms virtual using 360-degree cameras, multiple screens and amplified acoustics so students can continue to participate if sick, promoting virtual student inclusion.
  • Provide environmental control for teachers and staff (e.g., daylighting, temperature, etc.) by including dimmable lights, window blinds and classroom-specific thermostats.4
  • Incorporate operable windows for greater thermal control and increased natural ventilation4 and educate teachers about mechanical air filtration systems so they use the systems effectively.
  • Provide options for adjustable desk height or standing desks. Some studies show improvements in physical activity and attention for elementary students.
  • Provide a touchless entry option for students, including motion-activated, foot opener or one that can be easily propped open.

Research shows that schools have a fundamental impact on student health, thinking and performance,4 which makes Pre-K-12 school building systems a public health intervention. When designed properly, building systems provide benefits to the whole community as they support indoor air quality, thermal comfort, acoustics and visual acuity.

  • Maximize ventilation and outside air supply. Include operable windows for passive ventilation during potential power outages.5
  • Invest in mechanical air filtration systems and/or supplement with portable air cleaners to lower levels of indoor air pollutants. Include High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration to remove airborne particles or high-rated air filters with the ability to upgrade filters to higher efficiencies (+MERV-13).
  • Use upper room ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) strategically in high use spaces such as nurses’ areas or places with sensitive occupants.6
  • Use real-time sensors to track air quality (carbon dioxide, particulate matter) or measure IAQ with a flow meter.
  • Elevate critical infrastructure (electrical transformers) or if the building is new, make the entire facility above the floodplain to prevent the school from becoming an island during extreme weather events.
  • Provide HVAC or humidification/dehumidification systems capable of increasing relative humidity (40-60 percent) in winter months to reduce communicable disease transmission.7

Thoughtfully planned circulation areas increase opportunities to extend learning environments. With smart design and strategic signage, corridors and stairwells offer schools additional space to support both learning and health. Variety and flexibility give students agency, support collaboration and can reduce density when needed.

  • Offer a variety of space types within circulation zones — individual nooks as well as areas that support medium and large groups of students. Flexible breakout areas can increase collaboration and offer additional square footage when needed.
  • Place handwashing or sanitizing stations at the top and bottom of each stairwell, including sanitization stations near restrooms.
  • Display signage with easy-to-understand language and symbols, positive messaging and minimal text to promote healthy actions and support wayfinding.

From the cells in your body to a sense of belonging, building materials and furniture can influence health and well-being. These strategies call attention to the fact school furniture can include harmful chemical additives that migrate out into the dust and air we breathe. Additionally, furniture can further or hinder student inclusion

  • Select hard, non-porous furnishings that will respond well to green cleaning products such as, Green Seal™, the EPA’s Design for the Environment, Environmental Choice’s EcoLogo and the European Union’s Ecolabel.8
  • Use EPA-approved cleaners and disinfectants that are effective on bacterial, viral and fungal infections.9
  • Account for the chemical sensitivities of students and staff when considering cleaning products (e.g., avoid scented cleaners).10
  • Select low-emitting VOC furniture, building materials, adhesives and paints to limit impact on indoor air quality and health.9

Used countless times throughout the day, school restroom design should not be an afterthought. As schools work to future-proof learning environments, now is the time to holistically rethink their design. A collaborative approach and simple solution, such as direction of travel, thoughtful signage and touchless technology can provide communities with healthy and inclusive restroom facilities.

  • Implement airport-style restroom designs to reduce touchpoints while also creating a more inclusive space. This design includes open and visible hand washing stations, individual stalls and one-way traffic flow.
  • Remove restroom doors to reduce touchpoints if existing walls provide adequate privacy.
  • Consider touchless technology for doors and fixtures: doors, faucets, toilets, etc.
  • Modify drinking fountains into bottle fillers. Include hand washing and sanitizing stations next to bottle filler stations.
  • Then possible, include lights to indicate when stalls are unoccupied.
  • Employ equitable design solutions. Consider gender-inclusive, universal design, etc.

Driven by the pandemic, inequities in our systems, community needs and technology, the desire for holistic solutions that support student health has never been greater. As we respond to the current pandemic and future challenges, school nurses will play a critical role in helping us to design facilities that are resilient and take a holistic approach to student health. Using an evidence-based approach to planning, we can provide a student-centered health experience.

  • Health services will require increased square footage to provide space at the waiting area to isolate sick and well individuals. The sick area should lead to an isolation room. In addition, handwashing/sanitation areas should be provided at entry.
  • Create a single point of entry and exit for students to facilitate one-way student flow to limit spread.12
  • Provide triage areas at the front of the nurses’ office to help sort well and unwell students.13
  • Provide mother’s rooms throughout the facility, outside the nurses’ area to avoid contact with sick individuals.
  • Provide direct views to cot area to monitor sick patients. 

1. Kweon, B.-S., et al. (2017). “The link between school environments and student academic performance.” Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 23: 35-43
2. Collaborative for High Performance Schools. (2020) Northeast CHPS Criteria Version 3.1. + MA_Addendum.pdf
3. International CPTED Association. Accessed on March 23, 2021 from
4. Mendell MJ, Heath GA. Do indoor pollutants and thermal conditions in schools infuence student performance? A critical review of the literature. Indoor Air. 2005 Feb;15(1):27-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0668.2004.00320.x. Erratum in: Indoor Air. 2005 Feb;15(1):67. PMID: 15660567
5. Stabile L, Dell’Isola M, Russi A, Massimo A, Buonanno G. The effect of natural ventilation strategy on indoor air quality in schools. Sci Total Environ. 2017 Oct 1;595:894-902. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.03.048. Epub 2017 Apr 19. PMID: 28432989
6. CDC. 2021. Ventilation in Buildings.
7. Koep, T.H., Enders, F.T., Pierret, C. et al. Predictors of indoor absolute humidity and estimated effects on infuenza virus survival in grade schools. BMC Infect Dis 13, 71 (2013).
8. Regional Asthma Management & Prevention. (ND) Green Cleaning in Schools: A Guide for Advocates.
9. U.S. EPA. (2021). List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19).
10. Bradshaw & Robinson. (2010). Guidelines to Accommodate Students and Staff with Environmental Sensitivities: A Guide for Schools.
11. U.S. EPA. (2021) Volatile Organic Compounds Impact on Indoor Air Quality.
12. CDC. (2021). Quick Guide for School Nurses or School COVID-19 POC(s) -
13. ACEP - Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Patient Arrival and Triage -