As educational institutions across the country reopen after the lockdown, there is an imminent need to re-think and conscientiously adopt an action plan that aids in building a safer community to cultivate learning.
Several studies, over the past few months, have shown that COVID-19 spreads more in closed-off, compact, and poorly-ventilated spaces. Most schools and university campuses today, exist as hermetically-sealed, integrated buildings that are connected through shared circulation elements such as lobbies, double-loaded corridors, and elevator banks. The ventilation problem is exacerbated because 90% of the air is recirculated due to air conditioning and only 5% fresh air is brought in. This increases the possibility of cross infection and contamination, and also causes high operational energy costs and maintenance problems.
Studies have proven that classrooms with abundant glare-free natural light, fresh air and cross-ventilation are not only good for children’s overall health and well-being, but also significantly improve academic performance.
How can this be achieved? One promising solution is to move learning outdoors or bring the outdoors in. Lectures and workshops can happen in shady open spaces such as courtyards and terraces wherever possible, while indoor classrooms can be planned along large, single-loaded corridors to ensure optimal ingress of daylight and fresh air.
It is also important to create clearly segregated circulation paths for students, teachers, and visitors, and designated lobbies and staircases for entry and exit so that transmission of infections can be contained. Given that social distancing is likely to remain, educational institutions will also need to revise interior layouts and furniture designs, leading to increased area requirements.
However, this can be taken care of by small changes to the physical space. Strategies include re-purposing large unused spaces such as gyms and libraries for classes and lectures, and having the teacher move from class to class while the students remain put. This will limit unnecessary movement and help lower spread of infections. Further, furniture that is light-weight and designed for single-occupancy and can be combined or de-attached as and when required will aid in meeting multi-functional needs.
Social interaction and collaboration are critical to learning and, hence, we need to find ways to adjust to this ‘new normal’ for educational spaces. For older students, staggering class timings and scheduling classes or lunch breaks in different time slots across the day and the week can help avoid crowding. Traditional concepts of courtyards and hierarchy of open spaces will also create safe spaces to promote social interaction between students and teachers at a more informal level and help facilitate long-lasting relationships.
Navigating the future
Designers and educators must steer away from planning solely for density and cost; instead, they must prioritise safety and adaptability. Further, harnessing technological tools and resources will help enable hands-free usage of security, door/window and plumbing fixtures. This will shape a post-pandemic learning environment that is user-centric and capable of keeping pace with evolving demands. As we design for the future, schools and universities will need to blend online and physical experiences to become an interface that not only enhances learning, but also fosters social and emotional growth.
The writer is a Partner and Principal Architect at IMK Architects.