Watch the Webinar Recording: Indoor Air Quality Solutions for Healthy Schools and Healthy Students

The past year has been a period of reactionary change for schools, with the pandemic requiring a pivot to remote learning, hybrid options, and careful re-openings. With the opportunity to be proactive, incorporate lessons learned, and effectively invest COVID-19 relief funding, school districts are planning upgrades to their facilities that improve health, safety, and learning for the long term.

This challenge found our team looking at the issue of indoor air quality (IAQ) from multiple viewpoints, exploring design solutions that take into consideration the synergy between systems and spaces to holistically address and improve IAQ. During a recent webinar, team members discussed how to ensure the improvements our education clients make now are more than just a quick fix and encompass best design practices from across disciplines. Education Design Studio Director Corey Johnson, Interior Designer Kaare Sola, Landscape Architect Dayton Rush, Mechanical Engineer Alex Russell, and Architect Anthony Houtz spoke about what to consider going forward.

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Here are some of the highlights…

As we learned more about how COVID-19 commonly spreads, it shed light on the shortcomings in how school facilities are traditionally configured. The riskiest spaces were poorly ventilated indoor areas where distancing is difficult. In fact, a familiar image that comes to mind when we picture schools — hallways crowded with students, teachers, and other staff — is a prime example of congestion where the virus could spread.

“Everything from narrow corridors to the lack of large lobbies or commons at entries created pinch points and made it extremely hard to safely distance,” Design Studio Director Corey Johnson said. “Where we had larger spaces, such as gyms and cafeterias, we found that a lot of the spaces had poor ventilation.”

One of the more obvious solutions to improving circulation and avoiding close quarters is to design flexibly. Classrooms and corridors can be opened up to allow for fresh air to circulate.

“Large assembly gathering areas, laboratory spaces and cafeterias: Those kinds of areas really benefit from having a companion space or being completely outdoors,” Landscape Architect Dayton Rush said. This could include a sunken plaza with built-in seating for larger events and serving as an extension of classroom spaces. Of course, each space and situation is unique, so designers and administrators must consider the needs and functions for each facility.

And while the issues of space and ventilation are easier to quantify, air quality in a school can be trickier to evaluate — especially because indoor air quality is about more than filtration and ventilation. To tackle the issue, Mechanical Engineer Alex Russell described how the Cushing Terrell team developed an assessment process that would be repeatable and remove some subjectivity.

“We looked at it from a very analytical approach, so we can make something objective and measurable,” he explained. The process allows design teams to compare space to space within a building, but it can also allow for an aggregate analysis that compares building to building in a district or determine a baseline across multiple districts.

Russell pointed out that air quality and ventilation concerns extend beyond COVID-19’s viral particles: Is the air circulating outside the building good quality? Are the materials being used to clean and sanitize surfaces adding harmful chemicals to the air? Are the materials used for furniture, for example, carefully selected so they also don’t off-gas harmful particles?

“Are we thinking about controlling the pressure and how that’s being handled mechanically and through architectural means, as well as material selection?” Russell asked. “Thinking about all of these things holistically is how we’ll achieve really resilient, great designs.”

With students attending Zoom classes and teachers having to balance hybrid formats with some pupils in physical attendance and others online, how students and teachers function in either setting came under a microscope, and the country is still digesting what virtual classrooms mean for young learners and their varying needs. A physically flexible classroom, however, could help respond to a greater range of teaching and learning styles.

“In educational planning, we’ve talked a lot about student-centered education, individualized learning plans, distance learning, and learning outside of the classroom,” Johnson said. “This year, we had that trial by fire, and it wasn’t perfect. Our hope is that this current situation sparks new virtual technologies and learning programs.”

Johnson explained that redesigning the classroom can allow schools to capitalize on the best of both the in-person and virtual worlds, which would allow for education to happen everywhere at any time. “We found that we actually need more space or better arranged utilization of space to meet the diversity of learners and educators, and specialized spaces for distance learning and hybrid learning and teaching stations are also required.”

Opening classrooms to the outside world also has educational benefits — especially as it relates to individual wellness, Interior Designer Kaare Sola said. “By providing spaces with greenery and considering different biophilic design elements, we’re able to design spaces that can actually reduce people’s stress levels, help improve their focus and attention, as well as promote healing and actually be really therapeutic.”

The pandemic highlighted safety and educational changes that have been long overdue — the average school building in the U.S. is 50 years old — and it put more money behind school districts’ ability to upgrade their facilities.

For example, $81 billion of the American Rescue Plan funds were allocated to support states’ efforts to get students back in the classroom safely for in-person learning, keep schools open once students return, and address the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of students. There’s additional funding in other stimulus packages for schools, along with the potential for education spending in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal.

How, exactly, these funds will trickle down to schools is yet unknown, but it does open the opportunity for upgrades and improvement. 

“We have a lot of infrastructure and systems that are at or past their useful life,” Johnson said. “These funds really have the chance of augmenting some good, needed infrastructure updates. Are the classrooms over capacity? Are your hallways too narrow? Are the mechanical systems outdated? Are there cleaning stations or sinks in all of your classrooms? These are all fair game.”

Which parts of a school should be updated and how to best tackle those needs will require a range of input and expertise, as well as insight into each community and school district. “We achieve our best success through a holistic design approach where we’re all working together for that commonality of a healthy space,” Russell said.

Looking to learn more and connect with an expert?

Our Education Design team is at your service. From assessing air quality in indoor spaces and determining recommended mechanical system solutions, to helping you choose healthy materials and optimize outdoor learning spaces, our goal is to determine a path forward that takes into consideration the full context of your building and the health of the people who use it.

Kate Gray

Kate is a marketing coordinator supporting Cushing Terrell's Education and Healthcare Design teams. She is responsible for the execution of all targeted marketing and community engagement programs for these markets. In addition to leading the coordination and creation of customized RFP/ RFQ/ SOQ/IDIQ responses, she participates in business development efforts, client relationship building, strategy, interview preparation, conferences, trade shows, and web-based exposure.