Covid Design: How Our School Stayed Open So Far

By Hila Stern

As Corona case numbers start to swell in NYC and talk about school closures and future city shutdowns are in the headlines, we may want to look to the schools that have been able to stay open since September. Having been a part of a multi professional team that helped facilitate schools reopening for this school year, I’d like to provide some insight into the methods we used in order to open, and stay open. 

As an architect working in the field of education, my firm HSB Architecture and Design has joined forces with many Jewish day schools over the past years. Back in March we started receiving calls from anxious clients about summer projects that would have to be put on hold due to the level of uncertainty surrounding Covid, although many of our projects were already fully planned. Private schools were concerned about enrollment numbers and whether school buildings would be able to safely and legally open.

By May the conversation changed. Our summer projects where not coming back but schools were starting to think about the next school year. School principals quickly acknowledged the need to develop a flexible, multi layered plan to hopefully reopen school in the fall. The building’s interior spaces had to be redesigned and reconfigured as environments that allow for a safe return to the classroom while maximizing the learning experience.

Design impacts every level of the teaching and learning experience. From the layout of classrooms, to the teaching methods and curriculum. Safely reconnecting students and teachers to their school buildings required a holistic approach incorporating the new practices, new protocols, new technologies and maximizing the use of existing facilities. It also had to offer cost-effective design solutions that ensure safe social interaction and create healthy and comfortable environments. 

One of the schools we worked with was SAR Academy and High School, a private Modern Orthodox Jewish school in the Bronx that was the first NYC school to close due to coronavirus. The Principals formed different teams: medical, educational, scheduling, design etc. in hope that our collaboration and combined knowledge could help form the plan for coming back to the buildings.

As part of the design team, in collaboration with Architect Esther Sperber, we considered multiple strategies built on the idea of “Radical flexibility,” Introduced by R’ Bini Krauss, a concept that allows the school to continuously adjust its space to conform to best practices, health guidelines and new technology in real time.

We summarized our solution in a Reopening Case Study presentation which established the guidelines for the design and planning process; they include: Safety and Health, Education Excellence, Social and Emotional Growth, School as Community, age appropriate planning and budget considerations.

Here are some of the changes that were made:

  1. Classrooms structure was reconfigured. In the lower school the students were divided into 12-15 student Pods with limited movement and limited interaction between pods. There would be two teachers per pod that would stay with the same students throughout the day.
  2. Underutilized spaces, such as the study hall, library, conference rooms, were repurposed to create supplemental learning environments. We had to reimagine and remap the building to find these “hidden spaces.”
  3. Stairwells and hallways were designated for single direction traffic. 
  4. Building modifications: HVAC systems were modified and technology upgraded.
  5. Creative use of outdoor spaces: In collaboration with the physical education department and needs we divided the fields into flexible spaces to be used by class pods while maintaining distance from other groups of students and teachers. 
  6. Signage and wayfinding were key in order to map a safe and socially-distanced pathway through the building and reduce anxiety by clarifying the new protocols.
  7. Technology has been incorporated in the High School and a new hybrid curriculum that includes a mix of online and in-school learning has tweaked based on the growing experience in zoom learning.

These unprecedented circumstances have given us an opportunity to rethink existing models and explore new ideas. While the changes to the school’s buildings were in response to the pandemic, we also hope they have long-term benefits. From HVAC improvements and touchless bathroom fixtures which promote general health and hygiene to greater flexibility of the classroom spaces and innovative use of technology.

In this multi layered process we have reinforced our belief that design fosters health, education, community and responsibility and that the best outcomes are often the result of a collaborative approach which reaches across disciplines. Our joint efforts proved to be effective in gaining community confidence and teaching our children that in the face of adversity, we can find solutions by working together.

Please be sure to check out the design teams more in-depth Reopening Case Studio Google Slide presentation.

Hila Stern is founder and owner of HSB Architecture & Design, a full service Manhattan based firm at the forefront of planning educational settings, in addition to an ever-expanding roster of residential projects. The Firm believes in designing environments, communities and homes that bring people together and craft unique moments in time.