How COVID-19 Is Influencing School Construction Projects

Tuesday, April 13, 2021


With nearly $190.5 billion earmarked for helping schools cope with the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, some leaders are eyeing the use of those funds for related school construction projects.

In 2020, Congress passed two relief bills that provided nearly $67.8 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March; and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act in December.

Those funds were eligible for COVID-19 construction projects, but schools had a more immediate need: putting them to use for technology, personal protective equipment, staffing and short-term changes to get kids back to school.

The recent passage of the American Rescue Plan, which adds another $122 billion to school relief funding, may add an opportunity for school leaders to focus on using federal money on construction projects and give them a chance to think up to 10 years into the future as they redesign schools based on lessons learned from the pandemic.

Here’s how that may influence school design:

Adding contactless features. School design experts anticipate touchless systems will become a minimum standard for schools rather than a luxury. Accessories like touchless faucets and toilets and automatic door-openers are commonplace in restaurants and retail stores, but they are often the first options cut from a school construction budget when funds get tight. Advanced technologies such as virtual and augmented reality will also allow students to engage in “hands-on” activities without touching anything.

Bringing the outside into schools. Air circulation and HVAC systems have topped the safety priority lists of school leaders, educators and other stakeholders for returning to in-person learning. Since the beginning of the pandemic, mechanical, electrical and plumbing design teams have recommended a variety of methods to provide cleaner air. Among them are increased fresh-air access, upgraded filtration systems, bipolar ionization and, in some cases, ultraviolet-C treatments.

Leveraging community knowledge. Districts that had already approved HVAC and roof replacements before the pandemic are looking at those projects through a new lens. That includes determining if recommended special air filters are compatible with existing systems and getting input from knowledgeable community members, such as those with experience in hospital filtration systems.

Flexible spaces will win. Before the pandemic hit, schools were moving away from sit-and-get teaching, redesigning learning spaces to promote collaborative learning. Sitting in groups didn't align to social distancing guidelines, so classrooms returned to row seating. Now that students can take their learning anywhere, expect greater use of comfortable spaces that provide an opportunity for a change of scenery. The ability to shift from group learning and play to a more singular learning space will be key. Flexible furniture to facilitate group or individual activities, individualized storage to keep supplies separate and accessible, and the use of technology can provide for group activities while keeping students at a distance.

Once delayed projects moved forward. In a year with few education bright spots, one did emerge: Empty schools allowed approved building projects to move more quickly. Some projects that were on hold for years were able to take place, and the updated schools will be ready for fall.