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Higher Education in the Time of COVID

Author Bennet Dunkley

Tags Insight

Modern open-plan workspace featuring a central communal table with overhead linear pendant lighting. Individuals work at spaced intervals, surrounded by wood-paneled walls and exposed ceiling infrastructure, which provides an industrial yet refined aesthetic.
Fordham University McShane Campus Center

Every sector – and every household – across the globe, has been impacted by the COVID pandemic. While architects focus on what tomorrow will look like in this rapidly moving and highly dynamic crisis and businesses prepare return-to-work strategies, universities are watching enrollment figures retract for the fall semester.

Students and families are asking fundamental health and welfare questions – is it safe? How can I be around that many people? What is the university doing to keep me safe? In addition, having now experienced remote learning, many students and families are asking why they should pay for the school year if the education isn’t in person and the experience is remote. Afterall, there are schools who adopted remote learning sooner, are better at it, and come with a much lower price tag.

First to safety

While there is much speculation in the marketplace – without any actual CDC guidelines or jurisdictional mandates in place – it is too early to prescribe. While the distancing and health and safety advisement that we have grown accustomed to over the last few months are likely to be part of the solution, we expect regulation regarding density by space types and circulation. In the near term, formal learning spaces like classrooms and lecture halls are likely to adapt and hold fewer students than typical enrollment suggests. Perhaps even half of the students will be in the classroom and half will be out.

We believe that a great opportunity lies for the group of students who will not be learning in the classroom. We’re evaluating underutilized spaces on campus so that they can become re-utilized as learning environments if slightly re-imagined.

Places on campus where students and faculty eat, use the restroom, and exercise also require a fresh perspective, and can borrow from strategies that workplaces and commercial office buildings are quickly employing as they reopen. For more on strategies that commercial landlords are employing to re-open, read our article How the COVID Pandemic is Changing Commercial Buildings. But first we have to get the students back on campus.

Getting there is a new challenge in and of itself. Students who rely on mass transportation to commute, schools with resident hall populations, and other systems we’ve taken for granted, now need to be considered anew and architects need to develop new strategies to keep shared areas safe. In all cases, we anticipate seeing – at the very least – a need for regular deep cleaning, antibacterial sprays, and increased use of touchless surfaces.

Next to culture

Student life is often a driving decision maker in selecting that school. Is the school still the school without events, the pep rallies, movie night on the green, the night life, everything that glues the student body together? Today, we find ourselves resorting to zoom calls for togetherness with our family, friends, classmates, and colleagues; how long can we thrive under these circumstances? I hesitate to see longevity in this way of operation – everyone needs a hug, a high five, or a smirk across a table once in a while. Incoming students have been dreaming of this lifestyle all through high school.

I’m generally of the opinion that we’re in an interim moment – and the status quo will return. Because of that, the solutions we are seeking need to be light touch. We don’t yet know what the permanent, or post-vaccine, world will look like. Will we come all the way back to pre-COVID planning, but with enhanced sanitizing solutions? Perhaps. But we shouldn’t advocate vast construction dependent strategies until we know more.

Taking a proactive approach

At HLW, we are preparing university engagements that support our clients through these changing times and have launched a survey to gauge student readiness for the return. We continue to ask our clients the hard questions and organize priorities side by side, all while focusing on the health and welfare of students, staff, and faculty.

Opportunity lies in this moment to create an even more powerful campus of the future, while preserving the culture that makes it such a special place to begin with, using both space and technology to foster deeper connections.