Reimagining K-12 Design for Long-Term Resilience

Stay-at-home orders that forced much of the second half of the 2019-2020 school year to be conducted virtually spurred a monumental shift over the course of a few weeks that is arguably larger than any other our modern education system has seen since its inception in the 19th century. While short-term solutions are top of mind for families, teachers, and local leadership, as designers we are thinking about what lessons this experience can teach us and how these will shape our designs for learning environments that have long-term resilience. From our perspective, learning environments that will exhibit long-term resilience will be those that are designed for intentional in-person interaction, are centered on flexibility, and function as community centers.


While communities had no choice but to learn and teach from home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, numerous challenges were triggered by lack of in-person interaction, instruction, socialization, counsel, communication, and more. Students were cut off from valuable opportunities for social and emotional development through in-person play and socializing, on top of the difficulty of transitioning to learn virtually and being confined to their homes. Teachers, most of whom are not trained to educate virtually, had to adjust to teaching fully online, determine how to gauge student progression and provide support, and handle varying levels of parental involvement. Parents have had to manage their children’s education more closely than ever before in addition to the chaos of their family’s everyday life all while navigating the ups and downs of a global pandemic. 

These extreme challenges for students, teachers, and parents exposed the significance of in-person interaction. Naturally, communities are eager to return to schools and have presented a variety of measures to facilitate this return. Solutions include implementing stringent cleaning protocols, conducting temperature checks, mandatory mask policies, sanitizing and handwashing stations, and the elimination of high-touch surfaces. Many schools will employ contact tracing to interrupt transmission and be able to identify those who are affected in the event someone in the community tests positive. Cohorting has been identified as a short-term solution to help limit interactions, with cohorts alternating days on which they learn at home and in the classroom. It is worth noting however, that this and many other proposed solutions assist in reducing risk for students but leave teachers, who may be at increased risk of contracting due to age and other health conditions, with the most potential for exposure. Another significant consideration for parents and teachers with school-aged children is how to facilitate childcare for kids who may be learning from home multiple days per week.

Our focus on designing learning environments for long-term resilience leads us to consider how learning environments should be modified to support the benefits of in-person interaction while ensuring flexibility for distance learning discussed above. School design will need to better accommodate both individual and small group learning, incorporate no-touch options whenever possible, and integrate technology to support in-person as well as distance learning. To reduce mixing large populations but encourage interpersonal development, students would be assigned to a small learning community. Building organization and multiple entrances would facilitate circulation such that learning communities would have easy direct access that avoids the intermingling of multiple learning nodes.

Pre-COVID schools were design to accommodate many different, often overlapping movement patterns that could create opportunities for exponential human interactions.

Reconsidering and rethinking movement patterns can create simpler scheduled movements that can greatly reduce chance encounters and control the number of interactions each student and staff member may potentially have during the day. By reducing the overall risk, more intimate interactions are made possible within the smaller cohort.



For the majority of communities, the abrupt transition to remote teaching and learning undoubtedly exposed a lack of preparedness for such a change. Overnight, teachers, students, and parents were required to adapt in a trial by fire. Educators and families worked through the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous learning all while facing issues of connectivity, access to equipment, and availability on top of the myriad stresses of a global pandemic.

Despite many challenges, teaching and learning from home unlocked certain opportunities, too. For some educators, the suddenness of the situation offered a reset, an opportunity to evaluate and rethink how and what they were teaching, and why. With standardized tests cancelled, teachers could focus on content and exercise more control over the curriculum. Older students were given more opportunity to manage their time and control their schedule. For example, a typical day of high school in the U.S. begins around 7:30 AM, when most teenagers are mentally not yet fully awake. While learning from home, students had the freedom to start their day when they were more alert. In addition to learning or improving on valuable skills like time management, students and teachers had more room to be creative and innovative as they made do with available resources. For decades the working world has sought employees with the ability to creatively problem-solve and think innovatively; pivoting to learning from home has given students the opportunity to hone these skills.

In the short-term, there is no one-size-fits all approach; that will be up to each local community to determine its needs and levels of comfort in returning to the classroom. In thinking long-term, we should consider the value and opportunity that flexibility offers. Building flexibility into the educational model (rather than flexibility in lieu of other solutions) can help students learn at their own pace and give teachers more freedom to creatively support and educate their students. For parents, built-in flexibility gives parents the option to quickly pull a student out of school for personal reasons without disrupting their learning; for example, if the family needs to care for a relative out of town, move mid-year, or keep a child home for surgery or a medical condition, students would be equipped to continue learning without interruption. Intentional flexibility will also enable schools and families to be able to flip a switch and pivot to fully remote in the worst-case-scenario of an outbreak or other natural disaster. To make this transition possible, learning happening in school needs to mirror learning that will happen at home so when there is a change in venue—for one student, cohort, or the entire school—learning can continue uninterrupted. Blending virtual learning with in-person instruction long term will accommodate all students, including those with non-equitable access to resources, through flexibility, access, and choice.

The double loaded corridor defines a large percentage of current school real estate. Simple renovations can turn these spaces into a blended learning environment that is more open and can accommodate a hybrid model of learning where students in school can receive the same educational content as those who are learning from home.  Some former classrooms can become individual study space while others transition to small group learning spaces.



Alongside numerous shortcomings and benefits, the experience of learning and teaching from home exposed the magnitude of what happens in a school. It has become exceedingly clear that school is not simply a place where children go to learn, or educators go to teach, but instead schools are centers of community that support students, parents, and teachers in and out of the classroom

This was evident for many schools that had to prioritize above learning delivering food to families, facilitating virtual connectivity, and providing both social services and emotional support to students and parents. To deliver these many services, schools and communities devised various creative solutions. Rather than transporting students, school buses were used to deliver meals while some schools set up grab-and-go stations for daily pickups. To equip families who were without connectivity due to economic and/or geographic reasons with the ability to connect to online learning platforms, schools devised innovative solutions from distributing mobile hotspots to enabling students to download content from the school parking lot. Parents suddenly shifted from occasional homework support to full-on teachers at home, while simultaneously attempting to balance working remotely, going to work if deemed ‘essential,’ or grappling with unemployment. In many households, older children became caretakers for younger siblings which took away from their ability to learn. These struggles to balance home, work, school, and life, all while experiencing the stress caused by stay at home orders and fear of an invisible virus potentially ravaging their communities made it necessary for schools to provide emotional support for parents, families, and teachers to help guide them through this new normal. In addition to these services, schools had to work to create or strengthen relationships with parents to work together to ensure students were progressing in their education and supported mentally and emotionally.  

Moving forward, the educational model must shift to better facilitate the breadth of services and types of support schools provide to their communities which have now been made fully visible. We can accomplish this by designing schools to operate as the community centers they truly are. This would mean incorporating programmatic and design elements typically seen in community centers such as food pantries, health clinics, and fitness classes for adults, all of which would be set up to function both on- and off-site. For example, instituting food service options for both takeout and on-site eating would not only support a wide variety of student needs and preferences but would also make this function flexible enough to withstand future changes.

As we look towards future school design, how can we address resiliency to a pandemic?  By organizing a building into smaller learning communities with separate entries we can reduce the potential for unnecessary interactions. Creating a community access space, or ‘front porch’ to the school can provide a place for students gather physically distant while providing a space for community members to access many of the social services that schools provide in an event of a school closure.



While the devastating toll on our global population and economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be understated, this experience continues to expose challenges and opportunities that we would be remiss not to examine and learn from. In the long-term, the impact of COVID-19 has the potential to cultivate newfound resilience not only in people, but in the places we inhabit. This resilience will power us to move forward from this experience, rather than reverting back to the old way of doing things. We can take inspiration from the amount of creative solutions developed in such a short time and redirect those creative ideas to create a better education system in the future. Though so much remains unknown and in flux, we must work to take what we learn from this experience and implement it to create places for learning that support communities, that are adaptable to future change, and that encourage critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.