As Colorado students and educators settle into the school year and adapt to the many changes that the pandemic has forced, it is a good time to reflect on the current state of education.

Teachers and school administrators have had to wrestle with unthinkable scenarios to ensure the health and safety of students and educators at school. They worked overtime to come up with flexible plans to start the year with remote and in-person learning.

For their part, parents also weighed new options and came up with creative solutions like pod-learning to guarantee their children would have access to education while still limiting exposures to COVID-19.

COVID-19’s challenges have only added to an already heavy burden facing educators. Colorado ranks near the nation’s bottom when it comes to funding for students.

Megan Ellis and David Kurtz

Schools struggle to balance a litany of needs against minimal budgets: student enrollment; the achievement gap and inequity issues across districts; recruiting and retention of qualified teachers (which is particularly challenging in rural areas); low teacher pay; limited connectivity and/or access to technology.

Compounding all of this, schools are now trying to manage new levels of issue complexity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historically, we have worked with schools to help visualize and bring to life the future state of education by designing and building facilities that more effectively support learning needs.

Through that work, we’ve noticed a common thread that runs through almost every school: the imagined future state of education is confined by existing standards.

Educators imagine the school of the future in terms that depend on the needs of students today. This approach is practical and pragmatic, but potentially limiting. And this is why we see the COVID-19 pandemic in a different light.

The current situation, while distressing and disruptive to the educational norms to which we’re accustomed, is an opportunistic event. We have re-evaluated these norms with 21st century design, but not everyone believed change was needed.

COVID-19 may allow schools to untie themselves from the anchors of the past to make space for new and truly innovative ideas that could solve, or at least minimize, these generational challenges schools face.

Never before have educators and students needed more flexibility – in when, where and how they teach and learn. We can support changing needs by reimagining what the learning environment should look like and offering more variety, with less rigidity, when it comes to our standards.

When we think of spaces that are contained in a school, there’s a pretty traditional list that seems universal. All schools have a gym, a cafeteria, a library, classrooms – many of which are dedicated to specific activities (i.e., the music room, the science lab, etc.) – and hallways connecting all of these spaces together. This universal standard also assumes that all students use these spaces in the same way, year after year.

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This traditional set-up is one of the roadblocks preventing us from realizing a truly innovative future state of schools. When we consider all of the variables that need to be accounted for in today’s education system – from individualized learning plans for students and curriculum standards to the many effective teaching styles educators are required to engage – it’s easy to see why the traditional breakout of spaces might be impeding teachers, students and administrators from reaching their full potential.

By designing schools with more flexibility to use space in multi-dimensional ways, we are taking an innovative step forward to respond to changing needs. For example, Colorado class size and population have grown overtime, necessitating larger facilities with higher density standards.

But cohort class size as a result of COVID-19 has shrunk class size. Now, we might see a resurgence in the use of wall partitions to enable schools to reconfigure space to accommodate fewer people with lower density standards.

Rural schools in particular are most in need of these same flexibility principles and tools as class size is extremely volatile year-to-year, even without COVID-19.  

With adaptable spaces, we can also imagine the possibilities educators might have to customize curriculum to each student. For example, virtual teaching labs may facilitate an expansion in curriculum or allow relocated students to finish out a school year at their last school.

Teachers might also have flexibility to move classrooms to more immersive spaces (e.g., a science experiment is conducted virtually from a professional science lab to save school resources), or reconfigure spaces to expand or contract as needs change. Schools that embrace this idea of flexible space will have more options to creatively respond to unforeseen scenarios that force changes to the learning environment.

These schools will also be in a better position down the road with facilities that can flex as learning styles and techniques change over time.

Today we’re focused on distancing and density standards, extending the learning environment outdoors, and technology accommodations that integrate in-person and virtual learning.

We can’t know what challenges we’ll face tomorrow, but we can equip ourselves to manage them with facilities that evolve and change as our needs most certainly will.

Designing schools with different levels of changeability will allow educators and students to face disruptions like COVID-19, and whatever comes next, with confidence and efficiency.

COVID-19 has forced dramatic changes to our daily lives and change is something humans are predisposed to resist. The silver lining is that COVID-19 has also leveled the playing field.

We’re all dealing with change and working to adapt our needs. Our hope is that this new reality will spur people to think differently, particularly when it comes to imagining the future state.

Something pretty amazing could be born from our current reality as we reckon with so many unknowns and consider completely new ways to overcome challenges.

Megan Ellis is a senior interior designer and David Kurtz is a senior architect at The Neenan Company, a Colorado-based design-build and development firm.

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David Kurtz

Special to The Colorado Sun

Megan Ellis

Special to The Colorado Sun