By Ripley Bickerstaff, Director of Business Development

Right now, university and college leaders across the country are fielding a lot of questions about the future. What will the fall semester look like? When will classrooms open back up? Can students live on campus? What protections will you have in place? One thing we all can say for certain is that campus life won’t be the same as it was before Covid-19. Our higher education clients are studying their existing facilities and making decisions to adapt their campuses for students to return. Each campus is unique, and solutions will vary depending on housing needs, space constraints, and typical class sizes. Based on discussions with current clients, we see preparation focusing on three distinct goals to provide a safe learning environment without compromising the vision of the university. First, the creation of safe and efficient testing facilities. Second, improving technology to streamline remote learning. And finally, the use of built environments to manage and isolate small groups of students.

  1. Safe Testing Sites — Testing. . . testing. . . testing. Before students return to campus, colleges and universities will need to establish testing facilities specifically for Covid-19. In the past, students would head to the Student Health center whenever they had cold or flu-like symptoms. In the post-Coronavirus world, campuses need to have separate, secure testing facilities for students exhibiting potential symptoms of Covid-19. This facility could be a temporary structure or simply an existing facility modified to isolate patients from the non-symptomatic. Often, these modifications can be as simple as a temporary partition to create two waiting rooms, signage to designate a 6-foot queue, and an additional exit for egress. Additional filtration measures and outdoor air ventilation could also be a consideration for these facilities. A contractor and design team experienced in adaptive reuse projects for higher education and hospital clients could help find the most cost-effective and safe solutions to make testing accessible and efficient for the student body and faculty.
  1. Improved Remote Learning — Before the pandemic, we had already seen an increase of technology in classrooms to promote remote learning. Covid-19 changed everything. From kindergarten through graduate studies, teachers and faculty across the country had no alternative but to reach students remotely. While I don’t think permanent remote learning is the end goal, I do expect it to be an important tool in the education environment from this point forward. I foresee every classroom being equipped for remote learning capabilities. This includes IT upgrades such as fixed network cameras, sensitive microphones, and robust networking capabilities. Consider the occupancy constraints we are seeing in Phase I. This week in Nashville, restaurants were allowed to reopen, but at only 50% capacity. This requirement alone could present a serious space constraint for educators. How do you get the same number of students, in the same number of classes when your real estate was just cut in half? One solution would be to limit the number of students attending class in person and allow the balance of the class to attend remotely, rotating attendance throughout the week. In the event of a student being forced to quarantined during a semester, they should be able to attend remotely and minimize disruption to their semester. As I mentioned, campus life won’t be the same and neither will the learning environment. Whether classes are held fully online or if class sizes are reduced, remote learning infrastructure will provide options. In the event of a viral surge, it will enable the campus to react swiftly and allow faculty to continue to engage with their students — despite the distance and limitations.
  1. Smaller Student Groups — Limited capacity and distancing requirements will affect more than classrooms. Campuses will experience the same constraints in their dining halls and dormitories. Organizing small groups of students, aligned by year, major, and living arrangement could be a solution to limit transmission on campus and facilitate contact tracing. To take it a step further, we could use the built environment to reduce comingling of these student groups. In theory, student groups could potentially attend the same classes (now in the same handful of classrooms), dine at the same time in the same dining area (now separated into smaller areas with temporary walls), and share the same living spaces (now with controlled access to each floor and designated entry/exit points). Combined with fast, accessible testing, this approach would enable better tracking and isolation of outbreaks on campus.  Of course, this will demand a high level of coordination and ingenuity to pull off, not to mention isolating a group of like-minded students is the antithesis of the college experience. While I’d like to believe that adding several handwashing stations and a contract tracing app could knock this out, I see universities taking a more active role and embracing an obligation to provide a sense of security in a safe place to retreat from the uncertainty of it all.

Higher education is always evolving as technology and student needs change. While this pandemic is something we’ve never experienced before, college and university leaders are experienced in adapting to changes. Unfortunately, no one knows what the landscape will look like three months from now, but we do know students expect a safe environment that is actively minimizing their risk. As you prepare your campus for students to return, partner with an experienced contractor and design team to find the best way to adapt your existing facilities due to the impact of COVID-19.