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21st century learning environment activating community space for students with study counter and yellow design feature covering the wall and ceiling at salina south high school
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Designing the K-12 Education Environment for Fall 2020 and Beyond

Ian Kilpatrick

The anticipation for the 2020-21 school year far outreaches previous school years, and for good reason. Schools shuttered their doors abruptly in March 2020. Students and teachers in many school districts were forced to move to online learning, while others closed for the remainder of the spring semester, cutting their academic year short by months. COVID-19 caused disruption to the academic and social growth of students across the country, and according to a survey we conducted, school leaders fear the pandemic will have long lasting implications across their communities.

Looking to fall 2020, administrators are searching for recommendations as they prepare to reinstate in-person learning, a homecoming that students say is welcome. Student comments from the survey confirm they want to return to their classrooms and experience the face-to-face interactions they cherished pre-pandemic. Although some degree of learning inside the classroom will likely occur this fall, the educational landscape will be undeniably different. And while the immediate challenge is accommodating local and national mandates or guidelines, especially related to social distancing, districts must weigh decisions without hindering the learning experience and reverting to the industrial age model. Over the past few decades designers and educators have partnered to create more collaborative and hands-on learning activities – the type of learning that is not conducive in a classroom arranged by rows of desks all facing forward.

From our conversations with school leaders, educators, and students, we identified four facets of the learning environment that could be modified in the short-term, including furniture, space, technology, and health and wellness. We’ve envisioned what a classroom can look like with the existing equipment and furniture inventory, or with simple modifications. While each can be measured as a stand-alone element, the four components working in tandem can support teaching and learning in a healthy and progressive manner this fall and beyond.

Space
Flexible facilities that support a variety of spatial arrangements – from the classroom to hub areas to the commons and gymnasiums – provide options for schools to respond to the daily needs of students and educators. Separating the classroom into four quadrants gives students the ability to work alone or in teams and allows for more pinpointed tracing if illness occurs. Designating zones inside the classroom also support various pedagogies, including individual and group work. Space-opening pieces, such as sliding walls or folding panel partitions, provide adaptability for a future-ready learning environment and increase efficiency within the existing school by activating unused classroom or commons space.

Aerial view of potential classroom solution using space planning and furniture to form socially distant cohorts
Six-foot tables can be used to maintain social distancing and collaboration potential. Image © DLR Group.

Furniture
Incorporating adaptable furniture inherently creates separation within the classroom and can be used for a variety of scenarios such as individual or group instruction. A few mobile examples are marker boards, chairs, and desks on wheels, all which can easily be moved to accommodate learning in the moment. Other furniture options include bookshelves that serve as partial room dividers and function as storage for personal belongings close to the door to reduce transmission, and six-foot tables that support social distancing requirements while maintaining collaborative activities. Schools can creatively repurpose existing furniture pieces to support learners and comply with local mandates inside the classroom.

Aerial view of potential classroom solution using existing furniture to form partitions between quadrants
Furniture can serve as a partial room divider or as a way of keeping personal items close to doors and away from students, to further prevent the spread of germs. Image © DLR Group.

Technology
The adoption of technology as a teaching tool will be essential, especially for schools that opt for a hybrid approach to learning that blends in-person with remote instruction. Technology, such as personal or school-issued devices, smart boards, and other applications are tools for small group enrichment and whole class instruction. Integrating classroom-scale technology, like a mobile laptop cart, in addition to personal devices is not only integral to future-ready learning, it can also increase efficiency of instruction.

Aerial view of potential classroom solution using flexible walls and furniture to adapt the space to evolving needs
Personal technology such as a laptop cart is an integral part of the future-ready classroom. Image © DLR Group.

Health and Wellness
Cohorts in the classroom support the social and emotional health of children and educators, plus the creative arrangement of student desks and workstations fosters a sense of belonging and community. Spaces for small group, large group, and individual learning allow for physical distancing, but also provide agency for students and their emotional needs.

Aerial view of potential classroom solution using a variety of furniture styles and layouts in one space
Even with social distancing, creative arrangement of student desks can create community. Image © DLR Group.

While the recommendations noted above are short-term options for this school year, they also support future-ready learning to keep moving students forward in their educational journey.

Learn more about the findings of our K-12 Engagement Survey.

This narrative was completed as part of the Rethinking K-12 Education research project and co-authored by Shelly Engels Yancy.

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