Commentary: What “Back to School” Should Mean in America

MASS Design Group’s founding principal and chief design officer Alan Ricks, says that before the pandemic, the sad state of public school buildings made them unhealthy and unjust. Let’s use this moment to invest in fixing them.

Alan Bio
Alan Ricks is the founding principal and chief design officer of MASS Design Group, an architecture and design collective that researches, builds, and advocates for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity. Courtesy Cristina de la Cierva

As school districts across the country grapple with uncertainties linked to reopening, one thing is certain: Too many students will be returning to schools that are obsolete and unhealthy. And they have been so, long before the coronavirus pandemic began.

According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, more than half of the country’s 13,000 public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems in their schools. Nine out of 10 U.S. students are enrolled in a public school, which tend to use buildings that are vestiges of the past mid-century and have reached the end of their functional life. The health crisis has merely revealed this fragility plaguing our public spaces. And with the pandemic’s devastating impact on state budgets, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to direct resources to a solution any time soon.

The disinvestment in our school buildings is a painful statement by our nation that we will not commit to equal access to education. The inequality is obvious: with some students attending classes in bright, comfortable, and healthy facilities, and others relegated to dilapidated buildings that pose an obstacle to overall well-being as well as learning.

A 2017 school infrastructure report found that more than half of the nation’s public schools need investments just to raise building conditions to a level that’s “good.” Recently, the state of Michigan settled a lawsuit over poor reading skills, filed on behalf of Detroit schoolchildren, describing rodent-infested buildings in shocking disrepair with broken toilets and water fountains, leaking ceilings, and shattered windows. Even in wealthier pockets of the country like Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, nestled between half-million dollar homes, some school buildings are crumbling.

While it’s clear that the pandemic didn’t create the state of America’s public school buildings, it is challenging us to face the reality of our failures, and more importantly—the significance of getting this right for the future. Schools have always been more than vessels for classrooms. Today, the public school building is the place where more than 30 million students depend on a cafeteria to eat lunch, nearly two million children receive basic health care, and about three million adults attend literacy classes. Many also serve as libraries, senior care centers, emergency shelters, and voting stations for the surrounding community.

Our healthcare design research has taught us the importance of spatial interventions to mitigate infection risks among hospital workers, patients, and their communities. The challenge is how to apply such solutions to schools, but we are not without precedent.

In 1940, Perkins, Wheeler and Will and Eero Saarinen designed Crow Island Elementary School in Winnetka, Illinois. Creative and innovative for its time, it was copied across the country in diluted form, but we have not seen the same level of investment since, and our grand vision of elevating schools has been left to rot over the last 60 years. What would it mean to invest in the next generation of Crow Island? In the next generation of our children?

It would mean placing greater emphasis on creating spaces that balance the social, emotional, and academic needs of students, teachers, and the larger community. We need to allow more room for shared citizenship. With that in mind, here are three among many adaptations we can and must make, so that more public schools can begin to address the well-being and educational needs of our children in today’s climate.

Schools must be designed for better physical health. Inadequate ventilation can spread coronavirus, but even before the pandemic, it was leading to respiratory issues, lower attendance, and slower completion of tasks. Good design can solve this. Access to natural ventilation decreases risk, and daylight improves the ability to focus, retain information, and stay alert.

Schools should reimagine the space of the classroom for emotional health. Social distancing must be addressed, but also what sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls social cohesion. Knowing one another, creating empathy, and fostering connection must be balanced with space for each individual to retreat and to reflect, as well as for small groups to do focused work and to bond. Maintaining six feet of separation within the school environment will be next to impossible and can also inflict collateral damage. We need to focus on other interventions that do not erase our connection to one another.

Schools need technology that can support both social distancing and optimal interactivity. Our schools must have the technology for conditions like today, but also for the more ideal situation post-pandemic, where we can leverage flipped-classrooms and other models to ensure students have the best access to learning, while also gaining the necessary skills, confidence, and well-being that comes from being together.

By forcing their closure, the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced how central schools are to the lives of children, families, and communities. But we should, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said, “build back better.”

That starts with greater investment, at a time when the federal government spends almost no money on school infrastructure. But this crisis also presents an opportunity for a radical reconsideration of the value of public schools. We’ve seen that when school buildings can’t physically open, it imperils our economic system. So, it should be easy to see that schools that are poorly built or not maintained can become a real public health threat.

The GAO report highlighted that roughly $50 billion of school district expenditures across the country are used for capital construction. However, the funding amounts and mechanisms differed considerably within and across states, contributing to the inequities we see in our school systems today.

Federal funding for school infrastructure projects pales in comparison to the recently unveiled $1.5 trillion plan proposed by the House of Representatives to repair roads, bridges, and broadband access. Furthermore, Congress is currently weighing the HEROES Act, which includes $100 billion for K-12 and higher education, but which cannot be used for capital projects. And even if that changed, the state of disrepair afflicting American public schools would require a greater investment given the transformation they really need. That includes better design to create healthier and intentional spaces for vital health and social services that can keep communities safe and prevent the spread of diseases.

As this pandemic continues to expose injustices in our country, let us use this moment of reset to get our priorities in order. Children and families deserve better. We need a radical reimagining of schools as a critical infrastructure that support entire communities. It’s time to recognize there is no physical and social infrastructure more important.

You may also enjoy “What Inclusive Design Means for Education and Workplace Architecture.”

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