Going Back to School in the COVID Era – Some Guardrails and Guidelines


In the world of back-to-school readiness, Fall Semester 2020 presents educators and families with evolving challenges and uncertainties, where priorities must be carefully weighed and balanced for each unique situation and circumstance. By now, important school re-entry guidelines have been posted by the CDC, many state education agencies such as the Texas Education Agency, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Yet many unanswered questions and details remain for school districts and parents.

In addition to the various agency recommendations the following “Guardrails” can serve as important planning principles to aid educators and families in their decision-making.  As the return-to-learn issues are so complex and often conflicting in nature, these four tenets may help mark a successful trail back to the future. There is little debate about the intrinsic personal development values of the at-school/in-person experiences of social learning, so the issue is shaping those opportunities for maximum individual and societal benefit. 

Guardrail #1: Safety & Wellness

Safety is the paramount concern when thinking about space considerations in a COVID back- to-school environment. Beyond pre-COVID physical safety and now proper distancing, prescribed sanitization/masking procedures along with reinforced good-health habits will be essential.

But, in the interest of comprehensive student wellness, planners should seize the moment to design learning environments that will inspire and help students and community adjust and thrive.

Many students have experienced significant stress recently, including a quick move to distance learning coupled with a general sense of isolation from friends and loved ones when quarantined for months at a time. Returning to school, even in some type of blended form, should recognize the impact of this stress and address the needs that come from it.

For example, combining required social distancing with a more informal, casual learning environment that leverages existing open spaces such as libraries, cafeterias or gyms that will likely need to be repurposed anyway, could prove beneficial. Think softer chairs, or sofas, spread out so that students can still safely be six feet apart. In short, be imaginative. Rethink how to use current spaces, with minimal costs, to not only keep kids physically safe but also help them flourish and thrive.

Guardrail #2: Flexibility & Creativity

Space planning needs to be nimble and able to pivot quickly to new and changing needs. At the same time, scheduling of activities works together with space utilization. Reduced classroom capacity is a monumental challenge to overcome so optimizing ways to utilize larger spaces (such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, outdoor spaces, or temporary classrooms) is important. Although it places greater demands on teachers’ time, perhaps staggered schedules will lead to acceptable solutions. And while agency guidelines may provide some direction, individual communities should agree on ideal distancing for various age groups, potential threats, and likely behavior patterns.

Architects may help audit and analyze space/schedule usage on campus, based on designated parameters and referenced guidelines, including wayfinding signage and strategy assistance.

Will school start with most students back most of the time, a 50/50 arrangement where students are split into some on-site/off-site groups, or a hybrid “flex” model that supports distance learning — which may require digital upgrades — but allows for students to drop in, check with teachers or to do some small group hands-on learning, like in a science lab?

In preparing scenarios, consider entirely new spaces that may be relevant in the Post-COVID era – like parent/family rooms, or isolation areas if needed. Understanding spatial inventory and planning for its use under different circumstances will allow quick, effective and flexible response to wherever COVID takes us through the school year.

Guardrail #3: Empathy & Equity

In returning to school this fall, school faculties will be tempted to catch up on all that’s been lost or delayed academically since the onset of COVID, particularly with less-than-successful outcomes from the quick pivot to remote learning models. However, it is equally important to address softer, less apparent social and emotional aspects of learning environments that will shape student futures just as much.

Many students have experienced trauma throughout this pandemic, creating needs that go much deeper than academic learning. It will be important to understand what students have been through and how their basic needs may have changed. Kids are going to have a different frame of reference about their lives than before. School should be a place to teach and learn, but also to understand, coach and mentor. That means relationships between teachers, staff, students and parents will become even more important.

Beyond safety and “book-learning” educators should incorporate non-traditional criteria for services and space design, like empathy, adaptability, flexibility, and particularly equity. Most school systems have a very rigid sense of how to use both space and time and this may be an opportunity to break with the ways things have always been done and consider new relevant options, something that would be particularly beneficial to students from marginalized communities. Perhaps, in these cases, greater individualized attention and coordination between students, teachers, and parents could develop more meaningful relationships that help overcome traditional learning challenges.

Our pandemic state offers a chance to imagine new opportunities for space, time, and supportive social learning environments.

Our pandemic state offers a chance to imagine new opportunities for space, time, and supportive social learning environments.

The fallout from COVID-19 exposed several pre-existing inequities such as gaps in the availability of broadband internet, devices, and access to online content. We must work to improve this technological imbalance because students who lack these opportunities will fall farther behind as our world rapidly becomes more digital.

There is an abundance of open source material that all students should have access to and the educators must consider ways to make that happen. This new paradigm shift will invoke all community assets to provide a well-rounded education and developmental experience for young people.

Guardrail #4: Community & Inclusivity

Faculty, staff, parents, and older students will all think differently about returning to school.

Beyond student welfare, what are  the risks for teachers and administrators, especially those more senior? What is the plight for parents who are not able or well equipped to stay at home and help teach their children? Options are needed  that invoke different levels of blended learning. For example, in-person attendance could be flexibly scheduled and prioritized for families that have greater needs in this regard. Each stakeholder group will likely have a different range of issues and all of it will impact space utilization, transportation, and a broad range of policy decisions. How can this information be properly surveyed?

Time is obviously short. Funding is sometimes unavailable. While it is important to solve immediate needs and develop interim solutions, these implementations should be mindful of longer-term goals and outcomes. There will be phases of discovery and adjustment. Why is the holistic school experience so important? Managed correctly and innovatively, physical spaces can foster a sense of belonging; a sense of ownership; a sense of positive destiny.

It is difficult to appreciate now, but the COVID era is a catalyst to promote and expedite action toward new, healthier ways of the future and toward solving underlying difficulties within our educational systems, our communities, and our society. 

HKS can provide educators with space audits and utilization/optimization planning – including stakeholder surveys and facilitation. To get more specific, practical information  about designing spaces for academic outcomes as well as  social and emotional ones, contact Leonardo Gonzalez or Adelia Schleusz.


HKS is a team of more than 1,300 architects, interior designers, urban designers, scientists, artists, anthropologists and other professionals working together across industries and across the globe to create places that delight, heal and stimulate peak performance. The firm has nurtured a culture of extraordinary people with curious and creative minds who are passionate about delivering elegant solutions. HKS has a dedicated research team that digs deep to discover processes and ideas that improve outcomes for everyone. In everything HKS does, it is mindful of the fragility of all life and of the planet.