COVID Insights, Perspectives 04.30.2020

Are K-12 Schools a Part of Our COVID Strategy? They Should Be.

By Rachael Dumas, K-12 Knowledge Manager, Associate; Dr. Erika Eitland, Research Analyst; Brooke Trivas, Principal; and Steve Turckes, Principal

This story is part of our insight series around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. health care system is at a dangerous breaking point. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to assail our hospitals and medical workers, current predictions indicate the situation will persist and may get worse for some areas. Local authorities are scrambling to identify other facilities that can be retrofitted or otherwise converted into makeshift hospitals. Examples include the Javits Center and Queen’s Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City, and U.C. San Diego’s residence halls and Santa Clara’s Convention Center in California. But what about communities that don’t have a large, vacant facility they can immediately repurpose?

The answer is hidden in plain sight. Over 98,000 K-12 public school buildings across the U.S. are currently sitting empty and will likely stay idle until this summer due to closures prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak. Districts around the country are responding to unprecedented community needs by continuing to serve breakfast and lunch to hundreds of thousands of students daily. These facilities are an ideal relief valve for an overburdened healthcare system, and state and local authorities should prioritize them as such.

Large, open spaces like school gymnasiums and cafeterias—which typically range in size from 4,000 to 20,000 square feet—can be transformed into temporary medical areas or distribution centers.
Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, Massachusetts

Here’s why. Generally, the location, layout, variety of space types, construction style, and exterior amenities of modern K-12 educational campuses make them relatively easy to repurpose. Large, open spaces like school gymnasiums and cafeterias—which typically range in size from 4,000 to 20,000 square feet—can be transformed into temporary medical areas or distribution centers. Classrooms, multi-purpose spaces, kitchens, offices, and school nursing suites can also be adapted to accommodate medical testing, nurses’ stations, food service, laundry, and patient areas. In fact, a typical 800-to-900-square-foot classroom can provide space for six-to-seven semi-private patient areas. To put that into perspective, an average elementary school of 500 students usually has 25 general classrooms, while a larger public high school could have as many as 100 general classrooms with a variety of shared larger spaces. And, schools have multiple restroom facilities.

Schools can meet additional health care needs by installing temporary dividing walls or curtains for patient privacy.
Rodriguez Elementary School in San Marcos, Texas

Schools can meet additional health care needs by installing temporary dividing walls or curtains for patient privacy, and by using the buildings’ existing mechanical systems in combination with window-based exhaust mechanisms to circulate fresh air into patient rooms. Newer K-12 facilities may have the ability to activate audiovisual displays to provide real-time data, use generators for essential areas and equipment, and transport stretchers and equipment using freight elevators.

A rural or suburban school’s proximity to the heart of its community also makes it an ideal alternative for patients who would otherwise need to travel to overcrowded, overburdened hospitals. If health and sanitization are a concern, consider that thorough infection control and decontamination best practices commonly used in healthcare settings can also work in school buildings.

Using a school’s expansive exterior surfaces like parking lots, drop-off areas, and athletic fields should also be considered. These spaces can accommodate drive-through testing and pharmacies, patient screening areas, and general parking needs. Temporary structures like containers, tents, and modular building can also serve overflow needs. The Army Corps of Engineers has organized a plan to retrofit football fields, which can accommodate eight nurses’ stations, 120 patient pods, and all the necessary ancillary support spaces required to support COVID-19 functions.

Classrooms, multi-purpose spaces, kitchens, offices, and gyms can also be adapted to accommodate medical testing, nurses’ stations, food service, laundry, and patient areas.
Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, Massachusetts

The practice of repurposing our school buildings to serve the needs of our communities beyond student education is hardly new. For decades, our public K-12 facilities have provided social services, delivered meals for under-served students, acted as temporary destinations for basic health and dental care, and provided shelter and relief during natural disasters.

Today, as we battle an unprecedented and worsening global health crisis, our choice to use or forgo our nation’s vacant and idle school buildings as alternative care sites may mean the difference between life and death for thousands of Americans. Moreover, as unemployment continues to rise, access to basic human needs like food and water will also become urgent; a properly repurposed school building can double as a centralized storage and distribution center for these critical resources.

Fortunately, architects and designers around the country are already mobilizing to devise emergency solutions. We’re relying on decades of experience and expertise in redesigning existing buildings for new and different uses by partnering with state and local municipalities, healthcare administrators, and medical care givers. If you think your community’s school would be a good candidate for temporary repurposing, contact your mayor or your governor, and your school district.

We urge you—and our public leaders—to consider this alternative.