Return to School: Planning with Empathy and Agility

By Jason Mellard, AIA, LEED AP, Angie Stutsman, RID, WELL AP, and Chloe Hosid

Schools are rich environments for study, collaboration, identity formation, and social and emotional development. They are second homes, social hubs, community centers, and, most of all, epicenters for learning. Since the global COVID-19 pandemic, schools have closed abruptly, forcing students and educators to quickly adapt to a remote learning model. As attention turns to this upcoming school year, there are many questions on how schools will reopen. How can schools maintain or even enhance learning and connections on campus in unique ways while adhering to guidelines for social distancing?

We know that there is no one ‘right' answer to this unique situation, but if we can meet the challenges of this time with creativity and empathy, it is possible to make the most out of social distancing measures. Architects from Corgan's education studio have researched efficient ways to support student growth and academic progress and provide new outlets for maintaining social connections and camaraderie in the upcoming school year.


Schools Within a School: Building Communities 

Our schools are places for students to grow — to interact broadly with their peers and their teachers and to explore themselves and the world around them. Per the CDC guidelines, schools should "ensure that student and staff groupings are as static as possible by having the same group of children stay with the same staff (all day for young children, and as much as possible for older children)" (CDC, 2020). Facilitating a school within a school model could abide by the guidelines while also providing more significant interactions between a smaller group of students.

For elementary schools, this aligns closely with their existing model. Groups of students stay together with their teacher in one classroom for most of the day — effectively minimizing the number of people each student and teacher encounter during their day. For secondary schools, students on similar academic tracks could be clustered together as a cohort in a controlled area of the school building to reduce the size of each student's network of contact while still providing connectivity within the broader school environment.

By utilizing existing building features, such as corridors, floor levels, and classroom wings, as natural dividing lines to clearly define zones, schools can be subdivided into controlled learning neighborhoods. Keying these zones with unique colors, student artwork, or signage could give a vibrant identity to each of these spaces and bring a feeling of home to the school building. Teachers can rotate between classrooms within the learning neighborhood to further limit student movement.

Common spaces where students can gather to socialize, collaborate, and decompress are integral parts of our schools. Expanding the number and types of areas that can be utilized for necessary functions like serving meals can alleviate the strain of density and disperse students to new, more casual settings throughout the campus, including the outdoors. Staggering passing periods in combination with a clear directional flow in corridors allows students to maintain a safe distance. Allocating assigned exterior entry and exit doors to each learning neighborhood can reduce crowding and facilitate secure travel paths to parent and bus pick-up and drop-off areas.


Blended Learning

While there could be changes to educational environments as we know it, the transition to learning in smaller groups with a blended learning model could prove beneficial. There is an opportunity to emphasize more active, student-led learning methods to recognize and anticipate the needs of each student by building flexibility into lesson plans and activities, allowing each student to take control of their learning (Posey, 2020). Bringing students into the conversation of how this model could be implemented in the upcoming school year may yield valuable insights, teach creativity and flexibility, and give them ownership in this unique period in their educational journey.

With social distancing requirements in place, there will be fewer students in a classroom to each teacher, creating an environment that most students have not experienced before. This small-group atmosphere can invite more in-depth discussions and a more significant opportunity for each student to showcase their work. With smaller groups, there will be more room for learning tools, like mobile markerboards and flexible furnishings, that allow students and teachers to move around, rearrange their space, and support more opportunities for active learning while respecting distancing guidelines. Peer-to-peer experiences offer opportunities for hands-on activities, sharing ideas, and building connections ( Learning is not a purely cerebral process, but one that engages the body. It is best supported by well-curated tools and technologies that enhance the learning environment. Allowing students to move and actively experiment within the physical, digital, natural, and social world reinforces learning with meaningful and memorable experiences.

Blending hands-on learning with virtual education provides unique learning opportunities as well. Makerspace projects designed and mocked-up at home after a period of the independent investigation could be entirely crafted and tested at school. Virtual experience-based learning can be provided through gamification of educational content and virtual field trips (Steamcraft EDU, 2019). Remote laboratories have been developed to give students control via the internet of scientific equipment across the globe to collect physical data for analysis and manipulation and provide opportunities for collaboration with students in other parts of the world (Roschelle, J., 2017).

Home learning environments will continue to be an essential part of students' education. Providing students and parents with guidelines and targeted solutions for developing successful at-home learning environments can help to extend the benefits of a well-designed classroom into every space where learning needs to take place. You can reference Corgan's “Designing Learning Spaces at Home” guidebook for practical tools in crafting engaging at-home learning environments.


Expanding and Dissolving Classroom Walls

In a standard classroom, 16-18 desks can be accommodated while maintaining six feet of separation between students. Libraries, lecture halls, or collaboration spaces adjacent to classrooms can serve as overflow seating to maximize the number of students in the school. Students could view a live feed of the instructor on a projector or their devices. In any live distance learning scenario, students will benefit from continuous two-way exchanges with the instructor and their classmates. Virtual whiteboards, student polling, and monitored chat can be engaging methods of connecting with the entire class or facilitating group projects.

Another way to dissolve walls is to step outside the school altogether. Playgrounds, shade trees, and athletic fields can serve as open-air learning spaces. Outdoor environments can improve mental health and improve focus in addition to minimizing the spread of contagions. For PE class, individual restorative physical activities like yoga and meditation can provide constructive outlets for dealing with stress and fatigue. Shadow tag is a fun and interactive way for students to socialize and exercise at a safe distance by touching shadows rather than physically tagging another person (Hunter & Jaber, 2020; Cray, 2020).

Many students will need additional academic and emotional support as a result of the shift to online learning and the stresses of this pandemic. Identifying and providing support for students most at-risk of falling behind will be critical (Brown & Kafka, 2020; McLaughlin, 2020). Providing a comfortable space in the school for counseling and mentorship can boost students’ confidence as they begin learning in new ways. Rooms can be made available for parent training so that they can have the tools they need to champion their child’s learning. When parents and teachers are set up for success, their confidence and energy will transfer directly to students.

From managing children’s natural inclination to interact closely with their peers to implementing new ways to facilitate learning under challenging circumstances — there are many challenges unique to school environments that lie ahead. However, there are also many opportunities for growth in innovative learning. We recognize the gravity of this moment for school districts, administrators, teachers, students, and parents as we try to strike a balance between meaningful learning experiences and safety. Responding to this crisis and these challenges with empathy, creativity, and determination will allow us to make the most out of the resources we have available and support the best possible outcomes for our schools’ staff, students, and communities.

Jason Mellard, AIA, LEED AP is a Project Design Manager in Corgan’s education studio in Dallas, Texas. Contact Jason at

Angie Stutsman, RID, WELL AP, is a Senior Associate in Corgan's education studio in Dallas, Texas. Contact Angie at

Chloe Hosid is a member of Corgan's education studio in Dallas, Texas. Contact Chloe at


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