COVID Insights, Perspectives April 23, 2020

Back to School: What K-12 Architects Can Learn from Hospitals in the Wake of COVID-19

By Rachael Dumas, Research Knowledge Manager, Associate
The Johns Hopkins Hospital: Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center and Sheikh Zayed Tower, Baltimore, Maryland

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

The current health crisis is upending our everyday lives. Children learning from home is new reality for many across the globe and hour-by-hour changes are raising many questions: How long will schools remain closed?  How can parents and educators make remote learning a happy and meaningful experience?  How can we prevent or reduce the chances of this disruption happening again?

Learning communities across the world are responding.

With urgency and grit, they nimbly deliver a sense of stability and community to isolated families.  Some are using otherwiseidle buses to deliver food to the many students who rely on school meals for nourishmentothers are hosting spirit weeks via social media to help children feel connected, and some districts are using their resources to deliver hand sanitizer where it is urgently needed. 

These responses shed a bright light on the vital importance of schools as both institutions for learning and places for community building.   

When this health crisis passes and some of the trauma has settled, educational institutions will look for insights thelp them prepare for future pandemics or any other challenge the world of learning may face.  To help, we collaborated with our healthcare experts to understand the tools they employ when designing spaces for healing that mitigate the spread of infection and boost overall well-being.  We understand this is a complicated and nuanced issue, but hope that by sharing these best practices, we can help schools build resilience ahead of future outbreaks and other stressors.  

Below are techniques architects can adapt from hospital design to help reduce the rate of infection, improve well-being, and help school communities stay healthy.  

The outdoor terrace at Lisle Elementary School in Lisle, Illinois provides a calm space for respite during the school day.

Strategic Material Selection, Design Solutions, and Cleaning Protocols

Like hospitals, schools can integrate materialsdesign strategies, and cleaning procedures that mitigate opportunities for pathogen growth, such as: 

  • Increasing the number and visibility of hand washing stations 
  • Reducing the number of unnecessary surfaces where dust and germs collect 
  • Designing surfaces to be easily cleaned  
  • Thought should be given to surface details, materials, seams, etc. 
  • Minimizing surface clutter to make cleaning easier 
  • Increasing focus on indoor air quality and investing in mechanical air filtration systems  
  • Including Ultraviolet C (UVC) light to kill microorganisms 
  • Including High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtration to remove airborne particles  
  • Developing multifaceted cleaning protocols  
  • Including products that have a low impact on human health and the planet  
  • Using cleaners that are effective on bacterial, viral, and fungal infections 
  • Maintaining and reviewing instructions for cleaning staff  
  • Considering how cleaners impact finishes and textiles  
The restrooms at North Kansas City Schools' SAGE (Students in Academically Gifted Education) facility feature automated sinks and no door handles between the hallway and the hand washing area.

Decreasing Touch Through Data-Driven Automation

Advances in technology continue to increase data-driven automation in hospitals around the world. This trend creates more efficient, safer healthcare environments and many schools are incorporating technology to reduce frequently touched surfaces and maintain overall building health. Advances in automated processes, hands-free technology, and voice/device-activated solutions include the following:

  • Networks of sensors that track temperature, humidity, movement, and density and can adjust as needed to decrease contact and maintain optimal conditions for health and safety 
  • Sensors that monitor facility equipment and alert building managers when repairs are needed 
  • Devices that facilitate touchless access to regularly used spaces like classrooms and bathrooms 

Influencing Human Behavior

An individual’s health is affected by the environments in which they live, learn, work and play.  The effects of the built environment on studentare both direct, by influencing air quality, for example, and indirect, by influencing human behaviors. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the value of human behavior in controlling pandemics.  Its Outbreak Communications Planning Guide proposes behavioral changes can reduce the spread by as much as 80%.  Below are suggestions that can influence desired behaviors: 

  • Creating messaging that focuses on society, community, and individual behavior 
  • Special attention can be paid to how individual student and staff behaviors can protect others 
  • Focus on creating a balanced message that does not make the problem seem insurmountable while not downplaying concern 
  • Considering where belongings are placed to limit the contact of personal objects with shared areas and surfaces 
  • Reviewing patterns of student movement as they relate to shared and frequently used surfaces and areas 
  • Contemplate the amount of student movement  
  • Examine the process of cleaning surfaces when students move between stations/areas 

Recent events have made it clear that schools play a central role in the overall health of the community.  The ideas above offer not only short-term solutions but can also help schools create a long-term vision that will build overall resilience. So much is still unknown, but whichever solution is necessary, it is apparent now more than ever that the actions we take today will help us prepare us for the future.    


Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, Palo Alto, California
Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, Palo Alto, California