Academic facilities in the `new normal`

August 11, 2020 | By: ARCH. ERICSON P. EUROPA, FUAP (as published in the Manila Times last August 11, 2020)

THE coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic has taken a significant toll on people all over the world. It has changed everything ? the way we think and do things. Its impact on global health and the world economy has forced everyone to adapt, both at present and in the future.

In the education sector, schools will no certainly longer return to the status quo. It will have to embrace the new normal. Everything will change — curriculum, operations, maintenance, as well as building design. To effectively enable safe distancing, class size will be significantly reduced. A new approach that will be introduced is blended learning, an approach in education that combines in-person instruction with remote learning.

Design parameters of academic facilities will take on new considerations. Focus will now be on flexibility, digital interaction, virtual community, clean environment protocols, and wellness. While academic spaces may have been previously assigned for specific purposes, opportunities now arise to implement strategies for flexibility. Equipping schools with flexible structures can address their preparedness to quickly adapt to any eventuality or uncertainty. This will enable them to anticipate future disruptions in the academic year by providing spaces that can adjust immediately.

While physical distancing and digital engagement will impact so much on student dynamics on the campus, the sense of community and face-to-face social interaction will still be important aspects of university life. Areas designated for socialization will continue to be hubs of student interactions, but to a lesser extent. Prior to Covid-19, community connection in schools took place in hallways, cafeterias, lobbies and libraries. In the new normal, these spaces may be redesigned to limit close physical interaction and encourage only small social gatherings. To maintain the sense of community and culture in the campus, physical environments can be complemented with virtual interaction.

Cleanliness and sanitation will be a priority in all academic institutions. Emerging protocols on clean environments will be introduced such as upgrading air filtration, advanced cleaning procedures, intensified good hygiene practices, and antimicrobial technology.

These new strategies and the increased role of cleaning personnel will require spaces for storage, conveying, maintenance and staff quarters. Surface materials with antibacterial and easy-to-clean properties are highly recommended.

The new normal will also compel schools to designate a section in lobbies and hallways as areas for monitoring and testing those who enter the campus. Another area allotted for handwashing stations and PPE (personal protective equipment) vending machines is also desirable. Circulation routes will be reconfigured to include staircases and one-way walkways. In dormitories, some rooms may be appropriated for quarantine purposes.

The clinic or infirmary of the school will take an active part in campus operations during this Covid-19 period. A separate respiratory clinic will be established apart from the general clinic. The former handles cases with high risk symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, diarrhea, and shortness of breath. This will require isolation areas and protective partitions.

Telemedicine will become a norm in school infirmaries. This refers to remote patient care using digital platforms when the physician and the patient are not physically present together. Concern for the mental well-being of students will be another focus of the school infirmary. The prolonged isolation and uncertainty brought about by the pandemic tend to increase cases of depression and anxiety among the student population. Schools will then require provisions for additional space devoted to technical support for telemedicine and mental health support.

In the coming weeks, when students, faculty and staff will return to campus for the new academic year. School administrators will face the new challenge of embracing the significant paradigm shift in institutions of higher learning. As we move forward in this Covid-19 period, everything will be dynamic. Existing initiatives will be improved or totally discarded, while new ones learned along the way will be adapted.

New insights and perspectives, as well as best practices and emerging behaviors, will dictate the strategies to be employed in our academic institutions in the coming months or years. It will be a continuous evolving process that will redefine the design and planning of our schools.

The classroom, as the centerpiece of learning in a school, will be adaptable to the changing needs of the academic environment. Its size will allow multiple configurations and enable the students to arrange classroom furniture based on the needs of the class and the activities to be conducted. Moveable tables can be placed individually or clustered into small groups to create utmost flexibility. Furniture solutions that allow spaces to be dynamically curated are the best.

Digital interaction will play a major role in the pedagogy of the new normal. As schools employ digital platforms in the blended learning setup, existing classroom technology will be enhanced and at the same time, new modalities to connect and engage with the students will be introduced. Information technology devices such as cameras, microphones, monitors and computer systems need to be integrated into the faculty office, classroom, laboratory and other teaching areas.

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