Back to Campus: Guidance on Learning Space Planning, Protocols, Change Management

Smaller Classes and Universal Buy-In Required
Published 5-27-2020
  • Classroom configurations

    A classroom with modular, moveable furniture can easily be reconfigured for either a lecture mode (left) or a group mode, while maintaining safe distances. Video technology integrated in the space supports remote learning, as well.

    Courtesy of Steelcase

  • Reconfigured floorplans

    Social distancing was achieved in the newly configured spaces (right) by removing some seats and staggering others, separating desks, and installing screens.

    Courtesy of Steelcase

With this virtual school year coming to a close, college and university administrators are striving to envision how their campuses, and particularly learning spaces, might adjust in the near term when students return; 70 percent of institutions are working toward a fall reopening, according to the Chronical of Higher Education. Everything is on the table, from the physical (less dense seating in lecture halls, classrooms, and libraries; dividers between desks; and greater use of technology to reduce human contact) to the operational, including staggered schedules, enhanced cleaning protocols, new student codes of conduct, and strict pedestrian traffic flows. In order for these plans to succeed, alterations in the physical plant must be coupled with a comprehensive change management strategy for students, faculty, and staff.

“Universities need to think about adapting their space and systems, and then think about organizational and operational changes,” says Elliot Felix, CEO and founder of brightspot, a New York consultancy that specializes in higher education. “The third leg of the stool is to then think about how they’re going to define, communicate, monitor, and enforce a set of norms that the community needs to buy into and adhere to in order to keep everyone safe and create the best experience under difficult circumstances.”

"While time is short and pressure is high, you can change things now that were impossible just months ago," writes Felix and his co-authors, Abigail Smith Hanby, Adam Griff, and Amanda Wirth Lorenzo, in a white paper titled “Higher Ed After COVID-19 Peaks and How to Plan for It.”

“Considerations for Reopening Institutions of Higher Education in the COVID-19 Era,” a report by the American College Health Association (ACHA), contains a laundry list of facility recommendations for safe operations, including maintaining a 6-foot distance between workstations/workers; limiting course sections to 30 students; posting occupancy limits on rooms; limiting housing to a single resident per room and per bathroom; and either removing high-touch doors or retrofitting them to operate with card access, foot-operated pulls/pedals, or sensor-triggers.

In many ways, the short-term response to the pandemic will challenge current academic facility trends. For years, the focus has been on bringing people together, to study and exchange ideas in free-flowing spaces that encourage collaboration to happen spontaneously and organically. In the near term, those interactions may now need to be more intentional and regulated. And the move toward more shared spaces and equipment will make it harder to maintain a sanitary environment. “The more people who are sharing something, the greater the risk,” says Felix.

On the other hand, the trend toward moveable furniture and casework will make it easier to reconfigure spaces in order to conform to the new guidelines. And active learning spaces are already less dense than the more traditional lecture hall. “An active learning classroom has 30-35 sf per seat, whereas a lecture hall is more like 12-15 sf feet per seat, so those more flexible spaces are actually closer to the target density,” says Felix. “You might lose two-thirds to three-quarters of the seats in a lecture hall, whereas you may lose only 50 percent in an active learning classroom.”

Erik Kocher, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, principal of Hastings+Chivetta, recently posted an article recommending that institutions create “dimensioned drawings of classrooms for use by campus staff to set up new furniture arrangements and assist with demarcating the location of the furniture on the classroom floor, and then produce signage for each classroom with seating diagrams, distancing requirements, and circulation flow."

But what will those new spaces look like?

First Steps

It is likely that the fall semester will be one of hybrid solutions, involving in-person learning and remote classes, even for those who have returned to campus. That will provide the necessary time and space for the physical changes that need to occur. But according to recent roundtables, the blended learning environment “will probably add costs in management, time, and technology.”

Steelcase, the Michigan-based furniture manufacturer, has published a paper titled “Navigating What’s Next: Post-COVID Learning Spaces,” which recommends a series of strategies to alter the density, geometry, and seating in classrooms and common areas.

  • To maintain a 6-foot distance, remove some seating and arrange the remaining chairs and desks in a checkerboard pattern. The capacity of a 971-sf classroom will drop from 28 to 12, while the capacity of an 1,825-sf library commons will drop from 37 to 17.
  • Integrate technology that enables remote attendance from other spaces on campus.
  • Make use of larger campus spaces, such as gyms and libraries; leverage flexible furniture with movable whiteboards and screens to create boundaries. Storage elements, plants, and partitions can also act as barriers between people.
  • Rotate desks and workstations to 90-degree angles to avoid face-to-face contact.
  • Install 24-inch-high transparent screens to physically separate people, particularly where 6-foot distancing is not feasible. These can be desk-mounted or moveable, to create additional shielding and privacy as needed.
  • Place lounge seating in common areas at least 6 feet apart, and separate modular pieces.
  • Install visual cues, such as tape on the floor, to help people maintain a safe distance and to direct their walking patterns.

Lower density in the teaching spaces will require a change in pedagogy. “Faculty can’t double their teaching loads just because classrooms are half full,” notes brightspot’s Adam Griff, “so they may meet half as often or may flip the classroom by recording videos that students can watch and then come together for discussion (albeit in a classroom that’s half-full) or one that occurs online.”

Housing will be a more difficult challenge even than instructional space. The ACHA acknowledges that single-occupancy rooms “may be feasible only if the college/university has a limited number of students on campus for in-person instruction. When shared bathrooms are used, define the type and frequency of cleaning.”

Other recommendations include allowing double occupancy when roommates pick each other and effectively agree to create a small social circle, says Felix, and creating living/learning communities where a smaller number of students study in a cohort and live together, minimizing risk.

Many residence halls feature three- and four-person suites with single-occupancy bedrooms, a small common living room, and a shared bathroom. “Some institutions have remarked that the only thing to do would be to make them all singles, while other say the suites are okay, because the students will be sleeping in separate rooms,” says Kocher. “There’s no agreement on housing.”

Operational Changes

In addition to physical changes in campus facilities, the ACHA guidelines also list operational changes, including drafting public health practices for each course that establish expectations for face coverings, physical distancing, cough/sneeze etiquette, and hand hygiene; closely monitoring and tracking in-person attendance and seating arrangements to facilitate contact tracing in the event of an exposure; and providing face coverings and sanitizing supplies for individuals to clean their areas before and after use.

Kocher makes several scheduling recommendations to reduce class sizes, including spreading classes evenly across the week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., to eliminate spikes in demand and enable the scheduling of multiple classrooms per course; and dividing class sections into A, B, or C days or weeks, with students alternating the in-class experience with remote sessions.

Seats within those classrooms could be managed differently, as well. For example, the Steelcase paper recommends students sit in an assigned seat, which remains theirs for the semester, and that faculty move from classroom to classroom while the students remain in the room, instead of the other way around.

In common spaces, says the Steelcase paper, sofas should be marked for single usage unless they can allow physical distancing; tables and lighting will need to be cleaned before and after each use, by faculty and students, not just cleaning staff. Cleaning wipes and sanitizer will need to be accessible to everyone, everywhere; personal hygiene must be promoted; and masks will become the norm.

To avoid face-to-face interaction in tight spaces, Kocher recommends making corridors and staircases one-way, and designating in- and out-only building and classroom entries.

Dining halls will also have to change the way they do business.

“Students will probably order in advance from a limited menu, and then it will be boxed up,” says Felix. “You’re not going to see a bunch of people grabbing the same set of tongs or the same ladle or the same cereal bin. Food is going to be prepackaged and only touched by two people—the person who prepares it with gloves on and the person who eats it.”

Technology Solutions

Technology saved the semester for millions of college students who continued their education remotely when their campus shut down. And technology—much of it largely in use on campuses already—can help keep them safe when they return.

“There is already a layer of technology between people and the spaces they use—to navigate, book a space, check out a book or a laptop—but I think it’s going to be needed even more now, to prevent physical contact,” says Felix.

That’s not the only advantage of technology. Booking spaces online can be used to control the inventory, assure people that it’s available, and enable contact tracing in the case of an infection. “If you had a long table in a library reading room that used to seat 12 people and maybe now seats only four, each seat can have a QR code and a number; you either scan the code to sit there or book it in advance. If somebody gets sick, you know who were the three other people at that table that day.”

“These technologies already exist, but the university may not be using them in that way or at that scale,” he says. “Universities need to take a quick inventory of their existing systems and see which can be scaled up and which can be deployed differently.”

Critical Change Management

Altering the physical spaces and technology on campus is a daunting task, but that’s the easy part, says Felix. Success will depend less on the configuration of the seating than on the culture of the occupants, and shifting culture is a heavier lift.

Participants in a recent APPA virtual town hall offered several recommendations:

  • Break down departmental silos to ensure enterprise-wide collaboration.
  • Assess stakeholder expectations for services. Educate and communicate to the entire community.
  • Reinforce personal responsibility and accountability coupled with institutional responsibility in your plans.

Felix would take those recommendation much further.

“It’s one thing to change the space; it’s another to get people to change their behavior,” he says. “Universities need to create guiding principles and norms, and then get everyone to commit to adhering to those norms, whether they are about limiting group size, social distancing, wearing PPE, reporting symptoms if you’re sick, or opting in to digital contact tracing apps.”

And there must be consequences for those who don’t comply.

Felix says universities can learn from the examples of those that have already reopened in Asia. In many cases, a targeted information campaign began before the students returned. This included a code of conduct and an extensive orientation. Since then, their behavior has been monitored and the norms enforced.

“Universities need to think about this as a campaign that’s tied to their culture and values,” he says. “They need a video from their president saying, ‘We are a community, and we need to take care of each other. Everybody wants to be together. These are the conditions under which we can do it safely. If you agree to these conditions, we want you to return to campus; if not, please continue to be part of our community online.’”

The same messaging won’t work for every institution. “The norms are going to have to be integrated into something that makes sense for the culture in which they exist,” says Felix. While noting there’s much more at stake when it comes to public health, he gives as an example a recycling campaign at the University of Michigan. Organizers capitalized on the school’s deep-seated rivalry with Ohio State University and labeled recycling bins with signs that said, “Even a Buckeye can recycle.” At the University of Virginia, the honor code is written in students’ DNA, says Felix, so linking to that could be an effective tool for that university to use to ensure compliance with its new norms.

After the Fall

At some point, the pandemic will abate, and institutions will need to decide what their “new normal” will look like. The first step will be to reduce remote learning in favor of bringing students back into the classroom. The Steelcase paper recommends that spaces remain highly adaptable, with flexible furniture and mobile power sources, to respond nimbly to future disruptions.

Surfaces should be smooth and easy to clean, and fabrics should be washable; consider materials that don’t degrade with continuous cleaning. Using sensor systems, track the highest-occupancy spaces that require more frequent cleaning.

Facilities, curriculum, and services will need to be more inclusive, accommodating all learners, regardless of age, abilities, or health issues. And remote learning and working will not disappear entirely with this crisis, so institutions will need to invest in the technological infrastructure needed to support it.

Felix thinks institutions should rethink the way they cluster courses. He points to the Colorado College block model whereby students take one course at a time, every day all day, for two to four weeks, which provides an intensely focused learning experience.

“The smaller increments of time give you much less risk in a time of disruption,” explains Felix. “Instead of four courses over a four-month semester, you have one course a month for four months. If in the last month there’s an outbreak, that would only disrupt your last course instead of the last month of all of your courses.” Creating smaller groups of students who spend concentrated time only with each other also decreases the risk of infection and “increase the potential for developing a sense of community and belonging, which are the big things that students are lacking.”

By Lisa Wesel