Golden Rules Covid 5

The Golden Rules of Covid-19: How to Create Safe, Socially-Distanced Schools

Like so many parents, my husband and I have been working remotely and homeschooling our children during the pandemic. Truth be told, there are moments I want to see my kids back at school; they no doubt feel the same. We have new appreciation for the work of educators. While it’s rewarding to see a lesson I taught take hold, double duty can be tiring. 

Still, my biggest priority is ensuring my children’s safety. However, I’m also a lead architect at a company with a long history of serving academic institutions. Space, traffic flow, occupancy (which particular design is most conducive for learning)—these have long been my daily professional concerns. They are now of heightened importance in everyday life, as we wrestle with fears about social distancing in schools. 

My concerns as a working professional and parent are not unique; but I hope my skills as a designer, to help schools in need of constructive counsel, are. Administrators are facing a completely new set of risks and countermeasures need to evolve fast. Teachers must weigh personal health concerns against professional livelihoods, and many parents don’t have the option to work remotely. 

Our firm answered the challenges thrown down by Covid-19 by examining what we could do to help schools operate safely for all. We created a number of resources addressing the issue of social distancing, including imagery of what a return to school would look like. The following brings up some basic points architects and school administrators should keep in mind. 

The Massachusetts Department of Education provided spacing and capacity guidance for student seating with 71-passenger and 47-passenger buses. Courtesy of Massachusetts Department of Education.

Know Where to Go

Before you can figure out how to get somewhere, you need to know where you want to go. Look at what’s required by your local government and officials; they should provide a roadmap that’ll help guide you to success in creating and sustaining as safe a school environment as possible. Our firm is based in Massachusetts, and Governor Charlie Baker has set a strong tone and provided clear directions for how to deal with this health crisis. We’ve drawn heavily on his “Cover, Wash, Distance, Vigilance” program and specific protocols issued mid-May, as well as the Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance circulated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) towards the end of June. 

The most recent direction from our state stresses the importance of a combined approach that places equal weight on all mitigation strategies. This fall, many techniques will be implemented including adequate social distancing, appropriate hygiene practices, supplemental cleaning routines/procedures, alternate scheduling, personal protective equipment (PPE), and improvements in technology and communication. Finding a sustainable balance among these techniques is of crucial importance, because no single method will do the trick.

In addition, valuable resources have been created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the American Institute of Architects. This institutional guidance covers the full spectrum of issues from health to environment safety with industry specific insight.


Sample classroom rendering of student desks at least 6 feet apart with reduced capacity. Courtesy of Eck MacNeely Architects.

Keep Your Distance 

A main area of our focus has been determining how to maintain 6 feet of distance between classroom teachers, students, and other school occupants. This recommendation also applies to people moving between spaces. In addition, different age groups present different challenges; young children can be difficult to limit to a physical area, whereas more independent teens can comply with all the measures required under a multipronged, balanced approach. It’s a task akin to herding cats—but make no mistake, it’s imperative.

To help facilitate this, the June 25 update from the Massachusetts DESE issued reduced physical separation requirements to a minimum distance of 3 feet, enhanced by other mitigation strategies like face coverings and vigilant hygienic practices. It is still recommended that schools aim for a 6-foot goal whenever possible. Simple steps like staggering desks and increasing the spacing of furniture can have a real impact. 

Another distancing best practice is to limit the number of people in a classroom, hallway, auditorium, or other common gathering area at all times. Some states have put into place reduced-occupancy requirements. Decreased class sizes are increasingly becoming part of protocol, but with limited classroom space, other strategies must be utilized, such as hybrid on-site and remote learning in order to accommodate the entirety of the student population. 


How physical dividers can separate students sitting at a school cafeteria table. Courtesy of Interex.

Carriers and Barriers

It appears that it doesn’t take much for someone who carries Covid-19 to spread it to others. According to the CDC, the virus is thought to be transmitted mainly from person to person through “respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.” As those of you who have spent time with children of all sizes know, they are not as preoccupied with best hygienic and preventative practices as we would like. Therefore, when achieving 6-foot distancing is not possible, it makes sense to install classroom barriers that extend to a height above the head of a person in the standing position. Some examples of barriers receiving particular attention include:

  • full-height, rolling portable barriers
  • small, portable acrylic barriers designed specifically for desktops or countertops
  • portable room dividers or screens outfitted with clear acrylic or glass surfaces that enable a protective barrier while still maintaining transparency for learning purposes 
  • rolling whiteboards wherever transparency isn’t necessary; these function as both a learning and mobile protective tool
Schools can use physical barriers to improve safety and social distancing for students, such as these clear dividers in the cafeteria in Thayer Academy. Courtesy of Eck MacNeely Architects and Lisa Hillson Interiors.


For wide-open spaces, such as student common areas and libraries, consider demountable office partitions. These can effectively subdivide larger spaces into more manageable protective areas.

A gathering space set up with alternating chair spacing for social distancing. Courtesy of Thayer Academy and Lisa Hillson Interiors.


To decrease risk of the aerosolized virus while indoors, schools can open windows or hold classes outside, even as the weather starts to get cooler. Photo via Bloomfield Hills Schools.

Something’s in the Air

The current understanding of the virus’s primary transmission is through aerosolized respiratory droplets dispersed through the air. This makes enclosed interior spaces especially challenging.  Strategies to address airborne transmission vary widely from extremely simple (opening windows) to highly technical (installation of pathogen-neutralizing equipment at the point of air distribution). 

My advice is to take inspiration from the open-air schools of the early 1900s and hold classes and gatherings outdoors whenever possible, even as the weather starts to cool down. Increase ventilation rates and air changes and ensure that ventilation rates comply with ASHRAE minimum standards. This can be accomplished simply by opening windows. Increase the amount of fresh-air intake in systems that have adjustment capabilities, and keep HVAC systems running longer hours, even continuously if possible, to ventilate spaces 24 hours a day.

Upgrade air filters within existing HVAC equipment to a minimum MERV 13 (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) filter, which has filtration media that is able to trap airborne viruses and bacteria and consider increasing the frequency of filter replacement. Portable air purifiers with HEPA filtration are also an affordable way to reduce pathogens and have the added benefit of being visible in occupied spaces. HEPA filters (High Efficiency Particulate Air) are more efficient than MERV filters, and are available in portable units that can be placed directly within a space. This may be an especially useful alternative for spaces without operable windows, or where windows are not easy to access.

At the point of air distribution, consider installing either UVC or Bipolar ionization within mechanical ventilation paths to neutralize pathogens. UVC technology utilizes lamps that emit ultraviolet light directly within the ductwork to inactivate viral and bacterial microorganisms within the air stream as it passes through the light path. Bipolar ionization devices are also installed directly within the air stream and introduce ions that are dispersed throughout the air. These positively and negatively charged ions react with airborne contaminants, disrupting the surface proteins of pathogens and rendering them inactive.

Student Movements

You’ve surely seen it when navigating the grocery store—signs pointing traffic to move only in a specific direction, not unlike a one-way street. Guidelines recommend schools designate all foot traffic as a one-way flow wherever possible, especially for spaces less than 12 feet wide. For spaces greater than 12 feet, schools can have two-way movement, as long as free space exists in the center to ensure adequate distance is kept.

 Schools should apply floor and pavement markings to direct flow of traffic and as a visual cue for recommended spacing between students, faculty, and staff. Some have found simple marking tape effective, and others have changed up tile patterns or installed carpet. Simple changes can help effectively guide traffic. In addition to directional markings, reminders to practice social distancing are imperative. Ample signage that reminds students to practice good hygiene and wash their hands frequently supports the many other techniques and initiatives under way to decrease the risk of spread. 

Administrators should also keep the three E’s in mind to increase student buy in; educate, enlist, empower. By involving students directly in implementing preventative measures—as individuals or via clubs—effective movements can take root and grow.

Architects and designers can help schools adhere to safety precautions so students and educators can focus on new skills. Courtesy of Pixabay.

The New Golden Rules

Learning institutions have long promoted their versions of Golden Rules, outlining proper behavior, core rules, and practices for their communities. We now need to expand on these rules and stress the importance of individual roles and best practices of hygiene for the safety of all.

Between working remotely and homeschooling, there are moments when I could use a break; a little more time to focus on work, a little less fear over my teaching abilities. At the end of the day, I love my children and their safety is paramount, but I’d surely like to see them benefit once again from experienced educators and social interaction with friends.

Unless we adhere to a balanced, multistrategy approach, if we drop our guard, progress can be lost in battling this pandemic. As architects, we know the best practices of design and safety, and equally important, the spirit we want to create in any environment. 

We have a unique opportunity as design professionals to protect our children and the people tasked with educating them, when they most need our help. Let’s use our skills and knowledge so that kids can focus on learning new skills and faculty and parents can rest assured that proper safety measures have been taken for the good health of all. 

Featured image: Thayer Academy, courtesy of Eck MacNeely Architects and Lisa Hillson Interiors.



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