The impact of Covid-19 on school design
The prolonged closures of schools in 2020 has been shocking. How should new schools be designed to prevent a future calamity on this scale? Andy Homden considers the phoenix of school design that could rise from the ashes of Covid-19.
Long term threat
At a time when the design of new school learning spaces has been so dynamic and exciting, Covid-19 has raised important questions about priorities and fundamentals for school design.
Having experienced the threats posed of SARS, MERS and H1N1 to the ‘normal’ daily routines of our schools over the years, we cannot assume that Covid-19 will be the last pandemic to disrupt school can be organised and run. To ignore the possibility of a new strain of flu affecting school life and continuity in the next 20 years would seem to be the height of foolishness.
Schools and society
If there’s one thing that we have learned during 2020 it is just how important schools are for everybody. Good schools are at the heart of any society, not only as centres of learning, but also as community hubs, for both adults and children. Whatever else they are, schools are not some kind of leftover from the industrial revolution. When kids leave school and are asked what they will remember, more often than not they will answer ‘my friends’. The shared experience of friendship at a school, just as much as formal learning, has a direct bearing on the people that our students will become.
Few of us could have imagined that this would be suddenly and almost completely taken away at a single stroke. The sense of loss was intense and we have a duty to ensure that as new schools are built, they are designed to prevent such a prolonged period of school closure from ever happening again.
At first sight this seems to imply important new constraints. Health and Safety – always important – must be at the top of the design agenda in a completely new way. Catering for blended learning, staggered school times, year group and class bubbles, one way systems, isolation rooms. social distancing (especially for adults) and frequent handwashing will all require a new place in our planning. The issues involved won’t in fact be too difficult to solve – providing architects and educators think about the problems together.
And yet, as we think more deeply, might Covid act as a catalyst for change in a positive way, encouraging us to reimagine our approach to school design altogether? In the post Covid world, the use of outdoor learning spaces, the role of the school as a community centre and the need to accommodate pastoral care and individual wellbeing have all taken on a new meaning. And then there is ‘distance learning’. How will the increasing acceptability of online learning affect the use of spaces at school centres, and the reasons for which they exist?
Will schools become ‘drop in’ centres for older students whose access to their teachers will become a mix of online teaching, independent learning and face to face consultation, mentoring and discussion? Will this allow more room to be given over to new types of learning and mentoring spaces in a school? Will new thinking about design allow older students to start their school day later in order to recognise the sleep requirements and patterns of teenagers, an idea that is being taken more seriously, but which traditionally conceived campus designs cannot really accommodate?
Might schools, in response to the questions posed by Covid-19, being conceived as a series of smaller centres, linked to a main community hub with a range of specialist facilities, both indoor and out, to which large numbers of students might have access at different times of the week, instead of a large traditional campus, which they all attend at the same time? The normal conceptualisation of large school campuses in itself raises serious health issues for the post Covid era, with so many students of different ages gathered in one place with a large group of adults. And this is before we start thinking about the environmental nightmare of large scale drop off and pick up.
One thing is certain. If spaces at ‘schools’ are going to be imaginatively reconceptualised to take learning, recreation and a range of other shared experiences, to new levels in the post-Covid period, there will need to be some serious conversations not only between teachers, architects and interior designers but also with students, health carers, epidemiologists, regional planners and environmentalists in order to take us forward.
In fact that sounds more exciting rather than constraining. Covid-19 might just have given us all good reason for taking radical approaches to design more seriously than before – precisely because it has posed such fundamental questions about schools as centres of learning and why they are conceived and built in the way they have been in the past.
Andy Homden is a former international school headteacher, and a specialist in the opening of new schools. He is the CEO of Consilium Education, which provides a range of consulting services for school start-ups and project planning.
If you would like to have a conversation about the issues raised in the article, please write to Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about the start-up services provided by Consilium Education, please see