What COVID-19 Highlights about Health and Schools

On February 26th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first diagnosed case of Sars-Cov-2 (also known as COVID-19, and colloquially as the “coronavirus”) in a person without an obvious exposure from travel history or another known patient – a phenomenon referred to as “community spread” in the United States.

Global headlines have been dominated by the international spread and impact of the novel coronavirus since its discovery in Wuhan, China in December 2019. While the United States is just beginning to experience widespread infections yet, schools and parents alike have already started contemplating how to respond if conditions worsen closer to home.

The situation highlights an issue well-known to American schools: their propensity to serve as distributors of infectious disease. The formula is simple: concentrate young, developing immune systems in an enclosed box and all it takes is one kid with a sniffly nose to start a chain reaction. In 2018, excessive absences due to flu season prompted school closures in 20 U.S. school districts across 12 states.

This problem has simmered for years, with most districts generally accepting the inevitable; that there will be a few times each year when absences peak and teachers pray that their students — and they themselves — will be spared.

COVID-19, a disease with no vaccine, presents a novel opportunity to re-shape how we think about preparing for the worst.

Health and well-being in schools is a nascent area of focus among both education and design professionals, but resources are emerging to equip districts and architects to design health and well-being initiatives into our schools. The CDC publishes a framework for healthy schools called the “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC)” that includes “Physical Environment” among its 10 component areas alongside “Employee Wellness,” “Nutrition Environment and Services,” and even par with “Health Services.”

If the physical environment is to help promote health and wellness among students and faculty, then architects and districts need a new vocabulary and research set with which to operate. One such system, the WELL Standard, comes from the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), which partners with the Mayo Clinic and other health institutions to research strategies and certify buildings for healthy design and maintenance policies. IWBI also accredits professionals knowledgeable in the WELL standard to facilitate WELL informed design benefits like enhanced air quality and lighting that works with the body’s inherent circadian rhythm.

Prominent architecture firms have invested deeply in cultivating their knowledge of such systems to better serve their clients. HKS, for example, has more than 100 WELL-accredited professionals including Wayne Reynaud, a vice president of the firm’s education sector.

Reynaud’s recent work with the Birdville Independent School District in Texas on its $22.4 million Smithfield Elementary campus replacement integrated research into the physiological benefits of access to nature – often called “biophilia”- to reduce stress and boost the immune system of students and faculty. From a grove of trees in the entry plaza to the organically inspired Sensory Path for diverse learners to the nature-influenced materials and patterns in the makerspace and Learning Commons, Smithfield Elementary is designed to embrace its community with a comforting familiarity with the natural environment.

Smithfield Elementary School

Ultimately, this fresh awareness of the relationship between schools and health instigated by COVID-19 is merely the latest form of a simple premise at the heart of HKS design: how do we do what’s best for students and the faculty who care for their education? Hand sanitizer, easy access to hand-washing sinks and a stocked tissue cabinet are a good first step. But as we’re beginning to see in examples like Smithfield Elementary, there’s more we can do to build wellness into the future design of our schools.

This investment in preparedness will pay dividends every day in the form of higher focus, productivity, improved baseline health, social engagement, and myriad other benefits, and when an acute crisis like COVID-19 or the seasonal flu emerges they act as a natural buffer to mitigate risk and the spread of communicable disease. As we’re already seeing campus and district closures in the United States (and districts abroad closing for months at a time) we now have the opportunity to ask how we can take the next step in wellness preparation.

And while these strategies can help us prepare for future outbreaks, the CDC has a series of recommendations for schools to respond to the current coronavirus situation at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/index.html.