Will school design be part of the COVID conversation?

“What will school look like in the fall?”

This question, more than any other, is dominating the educational conversations around the planet right now.  Jurisdictions from East to West, from North to South are  wrestling with how to alter school to find a new way forward in the glaring reality that is COVID-19.

When one considers how schools have always been organized, the task at hand becomes massively monumental. For as long as any of us can practically remember, schools have been places of crowds. Children huddle together at the bus stop for warmth and sit three to a seat on the ride to school. Upon arrival they rush to gather with friends, sharing candy and gum and cigarettes and vapes, borrowing pencils and paper and sneakers and gym shorts. Then the bell rings and they are marshalled through often packed, narrow hallways into often packed, narrow classrooms. Mid-day arrives and they scramble to the cafeteria to huddle together at crowded, communal tables, or march off to cluster at the nearest pizza joint or convenience store. At the end of the day, the bell rings again and the entire population heads for the exits en-masse, in stark contrast to the staggered arrival, to once again crowd and jostle and mash themselves together in all sorts of configurations for the bus ride home.

Well, at least, that’s how it used to be.

Of all the ins and outs of what schools will look like when they resume during this pandemic, physical proximity is far and away the most daunting.

Now, there have been some models that have already been implemented with an eye to solving this particular problem, all with various levels of success. Austria, Switzerland, across the Balkans, all across Europe, in fact,  a great number of children have already returned to class, all with modified schedules and with safety protocols in place. In Australia, students began to return by attending one day per week, with that country looking to eventually have about 25% of the school population in the building at one time. In Denmark, students were clustered in “enclaves”. They stayed with their class all day long, and every subject was delivered by the same teacher. In Taiwan, masks, physical distancing and temperature checks have become part of the daily routine. And, so far at least, those protocols seem to be working.

Here in Canada, we are starting to get glimpses of what pandemic education will look like. Quebec’s ridiculously foolhardy experiment with re-opening schools was not a complete disaster, at least by some accounts. Considering the potential that decision had to go terribly and tragically wrong, that so few people got sick was nothing short of miraculous. Yet, even with a few months under their belts, Quebec is still facing some significant challenges come the fall, particularly in busing and in the cafeterias.

BC also saw schools reopen this spring, more with an eye to trying out a few ideas to see if they would work. This was an optional return to class under a number of conditions including the usual COVID health and safety protocols, and with a few nips and tucks to scheduling, such as students attending half days. However, less than a third of elementary kids returned to their respective buildings, and even fewer attended secondary school, making it difficult to draw conclusions.

Just a few days ago, the Ontario government directed boards to prepare for a  list of three possible options for September, an approach which received a rather lukewarm reception. The government quickly changed its tack and instructed boards to prepare for a hybrid model. This will see students clustered in groups of no more than 15 and attending on alternating days. Education Minister Stephen Lecce did concede, however, that this cohorting would prove challenging when attempting to offer classes such as physical education and drama.

Despite their differences, all these plans share one fairly major common problem. Regardless of country or curriculum, technology or teaching staff, it is the physical distancing that seems to be the really large fly in the ointment. We have, I would argue, learned more about the effectiveness of e-learning in the past two month than we had in the past ten years, and have certainly seen what sort of major heroics our teachers can get up to. But I find myself wondering what lessons we have learned about the physical space? For generations, schools have been designed to cram in as many kids as possible, but what about the next generation of school buildings? Will we finally see schools themselves re imagined to allow for physical distancing? Wider hallways? Larger classrooms? Counter-COVID measure washrooms?

Here at home, we are all anxiously awaiting our own Nova Scotian plan. Little has been said on the topic since Education Minister Zach Churchill speculated back in May that the re-opening of schools could potentially include lower class sizes. I imagine that a fair number of Nova Scotian parents are pining for the days of yore when the public could apply pressure for such information via their local, democratically elected school board. However, as much as I may not have always been particularly fond of how this government has handled the affairs of our province, this particular problem is a doozy. I am anxious to have a plan, for sure, and would like to see something sooner rather than later. However, I am more concerned that we get it right.

I also turn my mind to a number of capital projects in the works here in Nova Scotia for new school construction. A few, at least, have yet to break ground. It will be interesting to see if, like e-learning and scheduling, the physical plant that is “school” itself will adapt.

It has been one hundred years since the last major pandemic, but there is nothing to say that it will be one hundred years to the next one. Considering the amount invested in them, it might not be a horrible idea to set up our next generation of school buildings so we don’t find ourselves, twenty years from now, facing this exact same dilemma.




Filed under COVID-19, Education Policy, Nova Scotia Education Policy, Public education

2 responses to “Will school design be part of the COVID conversation?

  1. Kate Sircom

    I think what bears discussing is not only the plan for the physical building but also the educational model. Is it time for small, flexible, multi-aged groupings that can be more responsive to moving in and out of the school setting, as opposed to large uniform-aged “classes”?

    • Hi Kate. Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Yes! There is so much potential at his very moment to institute some fundamental and long needed changes in much of what we call “school”. However, if Ontario’s announcement of a new math curriculum in the fall is any indication, it seems the neo-liberal view of education based on data, accountability and test scores will survive COVID.

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