Special Report
School Climate & Safety

What Needs to Change Inside School Buildings Before They Reopen

By Madeline Will — June 10, 2020 4 min read
Fourth-grade students keep their distance on stairs as they walk to classrooms in the Goldbeck School in Hamburg, Germany.

School buildings are designed to be gathering places, spaces where students and teachers are meant to learn and work in close quarters.

Retrofitting them to accommodate six feet of distance between students and staff and sanitizing them at the levels that health experts recommend to guard against transmission of COVID-19 will be a massive and costly challenge for education leaders. With help from the National Council of School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies, Education Week devised a facilities checklist for school and district leaders. Many of these adjustments come with new costs.

School Buildings and Social Distancing: A Downloadable Guide

Add social-distancing signs and markers throughout the school building. Schools will need to use cones, ropes, and paint to indicate how far apart children should be standing on sidewalks and in play areas. Experts recommend that schools limit hallway movement to one way to prevent crowds, and they might need to add distance markings on the floors and walls. Schools will also need signage on social distancing in school buses.

>Estimated Cost: $1,500 for districts to prepare and post signage on social distancing in their schools and buses. $100 for each school to prepare site markings on sidewalks and play areas.

Reduce bottlenecks in doorways. If possible, schools should designate exit doors and entry doors, so students aren’t crowding the doorways. This may be difficult in self-contained classrooms with only one door.

Special Report: How We Go Back To School

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Read Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day

Restrict water fountains. Students and staff should not drink directly from water fountains. Fountains should only be used for filling up water bottles.

>Estimated Cost: Schools should consider providing students with water bottles so they are adequately hydrated.

Add motion-sensor dispensers for soap and water in the bathrooms. This will reduce touchpoints, possibly limiting the spread of coronavirus. Touchless paper towel dispensers might be safer than hand dryers, as the hot air could spread the virus particles.

>Estimated Cost: $300 per touchless faucet, $200 to outfit each toilet with touchless controls, $50 per touchless soap dispenser, and $150 per touchless paper towel dispenser. Districts might also need to upgrade their plumbing to support those installations, which would cost significantly more.

Limit the number of people in bathrooms. While many elementary classrooms have adjoining bathrooms, middle and high schools typically have multi-stall bathrooms in the hallways. School leaders should determine a maximum number of students who can be in the bathroom at once, depending on how many stalls, urinals, and sinks there are.

>Estimated Cost: Some schools may hire staff to monitor the bathroom doorways to ensure the maximum number of users at one time is followed.

Add hand-sanitizing stations. Districts can install outdoor handwashing stations so students can wash their hands when entering and exiting the building. Schools will also rely heavily on hand sanitizer in classrooms and on buses.

>Estimated Cost: 2 cents per squirt of hand sanitizer.

Repurpose spaces into additional classrooms. Maintaining social distancing in already-crowded classrooms will be difficult. School leaders will have to assess every space that can be converted to a makeshift classroom—including art rooms, cafeterias, gymnasiums, auditoriums, libraries, resource rooms, and teachers’ lounges. Using these spaces will allow more students to safely be in the building for in-person instruction.

>Estimated Cost: $7,500 for educational facilities space planners to help reorganize space and furniture in a district’s school buildings.

Add outdoor classrooms, if possible. If schools don’t have enough space indoors to accommodate students while maintaining social distancing, they could set up classrooms outside. This is also appealing because there’s a lower risk for coronavirus transmission outdoors.

>Estimated Cost: A one-time cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per classroom, depending on whether the district purchases a tent or canopy to protect students from sun and precipitation. Districts need seating for students, some sort of covering to provide shade, portable teaching supplies like white boards, and storage for supplies.

Change the teachers’ lounge. Social distancing may be even more crucial in this space, where only adults gather. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that office buildings limit seating in common areas and encourage employees to go outside for lunch. Communal items, like coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks, should also be replaced with pre-packaged, single-serve items.

Install protective clear plastic shields in the front office. These shields will help prevent transmission of the virus between school employees and parents and/or students.

>Estimated Cost: $1,000 per unit.

Restrict playground equipment. The CDC recommends keeping the playground closed if possible, or at least staggering use and disinfecting the equipment in between. Some schools that have reopened in other countries removed balls from the playground to avoid transmission.

Let fresh air circulate. Experts recommend keeping windows open to increase air circulation, which will limit the spread of the coronavirus. However, school leaders should be mindful of the weather: If it’s too hot, keeping the windows open could lead to students touching their faces more often to wipe off sweat. They will also need to consider safety risks to students with asthma. School and district leaders might also consider upgrading their air filter systems—a federal watchdog report estimates that 36,000 public schools need to update or replace their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

>Estimated Cost: Major repairs for HVAC systems are estimated to cost about $3 a school building square foot, and replacements are estimated to be about $10 per building square foot.

Assistant Editor Denisa R. Superville contributed to this report.

Education Week spoke to many experts for this installment. In alphabetical order, they are: Elizabeth Allen, the president of the National Science Teachers Association; John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington; Andrew Buher, the founder and managing director of Opportunity Labs; Grace Cheng Dodge, the deputy head of school for the Taipei American School; Sharon Danks, the CEO and founder of Green Schoolyards America; Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association; Mary Filardo, the executive director of 21st Century School Fund; Georgina Harrisson, the deputy secretary of educational services at the New South Wales Department of Education; David Hornak, the executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education; Larry Kraut, the chief operating officer of the Taipei American School; Sandy Mackenzie, the director of the Copenhagen International School; Curt Macysyn, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association; Rob Miller, the superintendent of Bixby Public Schools in Tulsa, Okla.; Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington; Scott Muri, the superintendent of Ector County Independent school district in Odessa, Texas; Mario Ramirez, an emergency medicine physician and the managing director of Opportunity Labs; L. Oliver Robinson, the superintendent of Shenendehowa Central Schools in Clifton Park, N.Y.; Monica Rogers, the information systems manager for the Tulsa Health Department

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