Her passion for public health is making K-12 schools safer in the pandemic era

Dr. Erika Eitland applies science to the design of learning environments
Photo of architects, designers, and public school officials looking at a 3D architectural model of a school

Working hard and seizing opportunity has been public health expert Erika Eitland’s MO since she graduated high school at the age of 16. Two degrees later, while earning a Doctorate of Science from Harvard University, she got involved in grassroots efforts to improve the safety of K-12 school buildings.

She joined Rhode Island’s “Fix Our Schools Now” coalition and lobbied for legislation to fix decaying school infrastructure. “For a doctoral student, I was pretty active from a policy standpoint,” she says. “I wanted to impact younger students because we can help set their trajectory physiologically, economically, and academically.” Her efforts paid off: In 2018, Rhode Island voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of a $250 million school repair bond.

Dr. Eitland joined Perkins&Will two years later as a research analyst, becoming the firm’s first public health scientist. She was promoted to Director of the firm’s Human Experience (Hx) Lab in 2021, which integrates human-centered research into the design process.

Here, she shares her thoughts on K-12 school design during COVID-19, the future of learning environments, and what inspires her.
Photo of Dr. Erika Eitland
Dr. Erika Eitland is Perkins&Will's first public health scientist on staff. She's also the director of the firm's Human Experience (Hx) Lab, which focuses on research in support of holistically healthy design.
How can we improve the health of students in schools?

One challenge is that our schools constantly play a game of environmental whack-a-mole, addressing legacy pollutants one at a time. First, we called attention to asbestos, and then we addressed lead in drinking water. Next, it was the need for more daylight after the 1970s. Then, largely because of COVID-19, indoor air quality became the hot topic, despite reports highlighting the need for improved HVAC and high asthma rates. All of these things are important, of course. But to me, the problem with the current state of our schools is that we’re not thinking holistically about the environmental factors that drive student health outcomes. If there’s mold, for example, kids are going to have itchy throats or asthma attacks. If there’s radon, we’re putting our teachers at risk of lung cancer. We’re not always acknowledging the science of the invisible. So to answer your question, to improve the health of our students—and teachers, too—we have to carefully consider the whole design and operations of their environment, not just the parts and pieces.

All of these things are important, of course. But to me, the problem with the current state of our schools is that we're not thinking holistically about the environmental factors that drive student health outcomes.
How is your approach to healthy schools making a difference?

I’m going back to the fundamentals of healthy indoor and outdoor environments guided by the U.S. EPA and asking critical questions about the who, what, where, and why of it all. These sorts of inquiries have helped our design teams account for social distancing in places where it really matters, like classrooms, while also identifying spaces where it’s less of a concern, like hallways. I believe this approach is making a difference because it considers the many individual puzzle pieces we’re trying to fit together, from public health science to building ventilation and filtration.

Dr. Eitland with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu
Eitland is the co-host, along with urban designer Eunice Wong (left), of "Inhabit," a podcast that explores the intersection of design and human health.
Are there COVID-specific changes to the K-12 environment that you think will stick around?

School stakeholders now understand the significance of indoor air quality (IAQ) in a way they may not have before the pandemic. The same stakeholders are also acknowledging the importance of student and teacher mental health. Flexible outdoor spaces—like courtyards with ample electrical outlets or parking lots equipped with Wi-Fi—are here to stay because they improve well-being while supporting connectivity. Meanwhile, equity in schools is hopefully at a turning point, meaning narrowing the digital divide and more students having access to personalized technology.

Listen to Dr. Eitland discuss how to improve indoor air quality in schools

What else are you working on now?

The Carter School in Boston, which is projected to open in 2024, is a project that gets me up in the morning. It’s going to serve students ages 3 to 22 who not only have unique physiological and clinical needs, but also live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Many of them live in public housing, and their parents have to lift them out of wheelchairs and carry them up or down several flights of stairs because their apartment building doesn’t have a functioning elevator. So, we’re talking about a particularly vulnerable population. Our research-informed design will optimize this new space so that it is a health-conscious and inspiring place for students to spend nearly 20 years of their lives. For example, color cannot be the only wayfinding guide because a majority of students are visually impaired. So, we’re integrating distinct textures, smells, and sounds, too.

Dr. Eitland and her colleagues at the original Carter School
Eitland and her colleagues carefully studied the health and learning challenges faced by students in the original Carter School in Boston, pictured here, to inform the design of its replacement building.
What in your career are you most proud of?

I’ve been a mentor for the Black in Design Mentorship Program in Boston. My mentee, a 17-year-old student, ended up getting into Brown University on a full scholarship to pursue architecture and design, and she’s been a really vocal force in terms of understanding the current state of schools in Boston. I’m so proud of her! This experience has taught me that representation matters, having mentors makes a difference, and we all have opportunities to pay it forward.

Dr. Eitland at the Black in Design mentorship program at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
In addition to helping enrich the design of K-12 educational environments, Eitland mentors high school students as part of Harvard University's "Black in Design" mentorship program.
Who inspires you?

Facility managers do much more for student and teacher health than most people realize. One of the people I respect most is Ken Wertz, the executive director of the Massachusetts Facilities Administrators Association, which represents professionals involved in the care, operation, and maintenance of municipal buildings and grounds. Ken is a registered plumber and an electrician, and he has such a clear understanding of what kids face inside their schools every day. Ken reminds us that a designer’s work isn’t done when the building’s architecture is complete—and that’s so important. A healthy building only begins impacting people when it is occupied by our communities. We need to go back and evaluate the results of our designs in a meaningful way so we can make improvements as needed. I also think we need to give facility managers a lot more credit.

"A designer’s work isn't done when the building’s architecture is complete."