Operations in Pandemic
The pandemic has challenged school leaders, partner firms and staff at all levels to think on their feet, collaborate and quickly respond to ever-changing guidelines.
By Stuart Brodksy
Senior Vice President
Business Development Manager
Performance Services, Inc.
Ron Richardson, AIA
Principal, Dir./PK-12 Education
Dir./Finance & Operations
Diamond Lake SD 76
Dr. Lyndl Schuster
Asst. Supt./Business Services, CSBO
River Trails SD 26
Dir./Building & Grounds
River Trails SD 26
The operational challenges of the pandemic have tested school leaders, partner firms and staff at all levels to think on their feet, collaborate and quickly respond to ever-changing guidelines. These challenges have brought both short and long-term design considerations into focus, including adapting classrooms, improving environmental quality and supporting staff and community members.
Read on for lessons learned amidst the chaos, some short and long-term implications of the pandemic on operations, as well as tips on how to address indoor air quality.Assessing the Long-Term Impact on Operations
As students and teachers return to the classroom, the short and mid term preparations that have been put in place will serve as a tool to measure the effectiveness and success of COVID-era solutions for both school operations and learning. As school is conducted under necessary safety guidelines implementing social distancing, enhanced ventilation and filtering, hygiene, PPE use and cleaning, these solutions will become part of broader considerations for long-term change. While these infrastructural changes are considered, teachers and students on the front lines, as well as leaders and policymakers, are also questioning assumptions about student agency, schedule, curriculum, assessments and social-emotional learning. Design for Wellness
The pandemic has shined a light on our considerations for student health, surfacing opportunities for high impact changes to improve indoor environmental quality. These capital investments must be considered carefully so that they can be implemented in an equitable way across an entire school district.
Potential improvements include touchless equipment and hardware changes to provide enhanced hygiene control, particularly in toilet rooms. Cleaning strategies include switching to equipment that utilizes environmentally healthy electrostatic cleaning, eliminating the use of harmful chemicals and their impact on air quality. Indoor air quality improvements include new HVAC equipment that provides increased air changes and enhanced filtering to reduce potential virus spread. National agencies and organizations such as ASHRAE and the CDC have produced effective technical guidance that will assist school districts to implement these strategies. Design for Adaptability
Social distancing, student flow, physical activity and decentralization strategies can be incorporated into master planning, renovations and new facility design. These designs not only provide adaptable configurations offering safe occupancy during a pandemic, but also create 21st century learning environments, including collaboration spaces and differentiated learning solutions.
A key design principle to consider is the creation of cohorts, or small learning communities, with extended learning areas. These extended learning areas can provide additional space for social distancing while maintaining visual contact with the classrooms and also reduce the number of students within a school that interact with each other. The cohorts also facilitate decentralization strategies, providing “just in time” ready access to resources such as toilet rooms, food serving areas and outdoor classrooms and play areas. Combined, these strategies reduce the need for students to travel through the building and set up coordinated circulation paths for entrance to and egress from the school. Family and Staff Support
Additional family and staff support have become more important now than ever. Schools need to adapt to the new teaching and learning environment by potentially investing in new initiatives:
Lessons Learned in Chaos
- A community liaison position could be put in place to reach out to families to determine if additional academic and/or social emotional supports, or access to food or technology are needed.
- To match student needs, new clubs and committees could be formed to address social emotional learning needs of students. Coping strategies and emotional awareness have become priorities as students are isolated more than ever from their peers.
- Staff training to address virtual learning environments has become a priority.
- Changes in districts insurance programs could provide staff mental health and anxiety/depression supports. Schools have been given access to additional resources via grants or local opportunities to address these concerns.
As school districts tackle the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, leaders of River Trails SD 26 and FGM Architects discuss lessons learned from this unprecedented experience.Returning Students to School
The most important lessons we have learned are that all decisions are fluid and communications are key.
River Trails is a small district in Chicago’s northwest suburbs with 1,600 students enrolled in four PK-8 schools. We started this school year in fully remote learning so teachers could master e-learning and we could focus on our most important goal: safely returning students to school for in-person instruction.
To decide whether we should be fully remote, in a hybrid model or fully in-person, we worked with a stakeholder committee to establish metrics and criteria for decision-making. We reviewed CDC and Illinois Department of Health guidelines, along with a range of health and educational research studies.
Our metrics, based on positivity rates, helped us determine when to bring students back while our criteria set the standards for instructional delivery, whether hybrid or fully in-person.
The key criteria we determined are that staff and students must maintain six feet social distance, wear masks and stay in cohorts which meant no eating while at school. These decisions required us to adopt a morning and afternoon hybrid schedule.
By mid-October, the metrics looked positive for activating a hybrid approach and we decided to bring grades K-1 back on October 26, with two additional grades returning in stages over the following days. Then, the metrics “went south” and by November 8 we were back to fully remote instruction. On January 19, 2021 we went back to an am/pm hybrid model.
River Trails heavily invested in PPE, cleaning supplies, UV disinfecting cabinets, improving ventilation and technology. We were lucky to already have a Chromebook for each student, but we expanded the budget for hot spots, eLearning and meeting software as well as Jabra speakers, microphones and webcams.
Lesson Learned: Starting the school year in fully remote learning helped our teachers become more adept with this type of instruction. In hindsight, we should have started the school year with our classes organized for hybrid learning which would have smoothed the transitions between remote and hybrid instruction.Space Planning Considerations
The Illinois State Board of Education and Department of Public Health issued classroom space planning guidelines in Summer 2020 which included the illustration below depicting the recommended space separation between students.
For planning purposes, FGM Architects combined this six foot separation recommendation with a two foot seating zone and then created school building “test fits” that school personnel can use to determine building occupancy capacity.
The diagram to the right illustrates a test fit for an elementary school. This test fit involved the conversion of larger core spaces (such as a gym and/or cafeteria) into classroom space. Please note that this layout does not allow for dynamic movement. Students must enter and exit the classroom in sequence to maintain separation. This test fit will support 79 percent of the original building enrollment.Fundamentals for Safe OperationVentilation
Improving air quality and maximizing the supply of fresh air is critical to maintaining a healthy environment inside a school building. Some key considerations are:
- Air balance reports calculate how much outside air is being supplied to each space.
- Data, including the space size and total number of occupants, are needed to establish system settings.
- The minimum outside air setpoints must meet or exceed ASHRAE standards.
- Systems that operate based on CO2 readings may not provide adequate fresh air and need to be overridden. This data should be examined when determining occupancy levels throughout your facility.
- Use MERV-13 filters or better if your air systems can safely deliver the recommended air volumes with a higher filter resistance.
In the COVID-19 era, meeting these thresholds will increase facilities energy consumption. Cleaning Procedures
It is important to communicate the cleaning/disinfecting plan and schedule. This transparency will increase awareness and the comfort levels of staff.
Partnerships and Communication
- Use products that clean and disinfect; the time saved can be used to sanitize surfaces more often.
- Multiple vendor relationships help when product supplies are limited.
- Third-party and in-house training should be provided and reviewed frequently.
- Touchpoints throughout the school need to be defined.
Our transportation company has been a critical partner with buses used for food distribution and deliveries. Last spring, we expanded a partnership with the neighboring school district that manages our food service. Through the Summer Emergency Feeding program, we began weekly food distribution which included seven breakfasts and lunches, a gallon of milk and fresh produce for each child 18 and under. This summer we fed 3,000 children each week – about twice as many as we have students!
While in hybrid instruction, our bus routes were adapted, and drivers added to incorporate mid-day and special ed routes. We consolidated routes to stay within budget even though we were bussing students twice as much.
Above all, we have learned the importance of a strong partnership with the teacher’s union, which has helped us to communicate effectively. As Superintendent Dr. Nancy Wagner notes:
“Before I send information or a survey to staff, I ask union leaders to review it. They are able to soften some of my language and communicate the same message in a way that will not trigger negative responses. Also, we talk about from whom messages will be best received: from the union to convey they are working with administration, from administration or as a joint communication? These are important considerations that make a difference.”How to Achieve Indoor Air Quality in School Buildings
Unlike a cracked window or a broken door, identifying indoor air quality (IAQ) issues is not always obvious. According to a CDC report published in June 2020, the transmission of the coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through objects and surfaces, like doorknobs, countertops and keyboards. That means the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in Illinois schools can be significant in limiting the spread. Even before the pandemic, a 2018 Harvard report noted that 46 percent of U.S. K-12 schools had indoor air quality issues. HVAC systems do vary widely in complexity, intended use, age and condition.Create a Plan
School building HVAC systems should be examined throughout school facilities where students will be present to be sure existing conditions or planned changes do not negatively impact the environment.
However, operational issues school administrators face to get students safely back to school other than indoor air quality can be daunting, so relying on facility partners, including professional engineers, can help Illinois districts assess and identify indoor air quality issues that can then be prioritized for action.Fund Capital Improvements
Financing HVAC improvements is a consideration, of course. Many districts are taking advantage of historically low interest rates, favorable contractor costs and a variety of creative funding options to get capital projects completed. Additionally, the HVAC improvements needed to enhance air quality usually reduce energy and operational costs as well, providing payback savings. Those savings can then be used to help fund HVAC infrastructure upgrades required to achieve indoor air quality in school buildings.Collaboration is Key
The recent pandemic has caused an even higher level of awareness about the need to provide safe indoor environments while at the same time addressing new patterns of facility use. There is no need to go this alone. By collaborating with a team of qualified professionals, quantifying existing capabilities and developing short, mid and long-term plans, school administrators can successfully address indoor air quality for the current school year and beyond.Ventilation
Action 1: Disable demand-controlled ventilation.
Action 2: Increase outdoor air ventilation rates as much as possible.
Action 3: Install localized exhaust systems for source control. For example, keep restroom or the nurses station exhaust operating 24/7.Filtration
Action 1: Change filters and clean coils, drain pans and the interior of the air handling units according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Seal the edges of filter racks.
Action 2: Install filters with increased efficiencies and enhanced particle filtration capability to the greatest extend possible, considering the limitation of the existing air handling equipment.
Action 3: Install portable, free-standing high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters with integral fans (portable room air cleaners) in high-risk areas.Temperature
Action 1: Maintain standard comfort conditions during occupied periods and standard setback/setup unoccupied space temperaturesHumidity
Action 1: Maintain space relative humidity (RH) between 40 to 60 percent. Scientific literature generally reflects the most unfavorable survival for microorganisms when the RH is between 40 to 60 percent.Air Purification
– Safely use air cleaning technology as appropriate
Air purification is considered emerging technology and can be explored to supplement the primary methods of ventilation, filtration and humidity controls. These include bipolar ionization and UVC lighting.
Be sure to address air purification strategies in an integrated systems manner, working with qualified professionals.Building Automation Controls
Action 1: Keep systems running longer hours to enhance the effects of increased ventilation and filtration. Investigation is required to ensure system runtimes do not create humidity issues.