Rethinking the Use of Classroom Spaces Will be Common in Many Districts

Who knew that you had been preparing for the pandemic 50 years ago when you were in elementary school?

For decades you have joked that you did not know that you attended a fake elementary school until you were ready to move onto junior high. In fact, you have some pretty strong memories of your sixth grade class helloing to move desks, tables, and chairs into what seemed like a towering space of a new school on the final day of class.

For you and your friends, school days were spent in a number of prefabricated buildings that were joined together. With one central space serving as both the library and the location where lunches were distributed, at the time your school seemed normal. You did not know any different, and it was not until the permanent school building took shape on the property that you began to realize that your elementary years were anything but normal.

What you now realize more closely resembles warehouse partitioning systems and modular office buildings, your school was a short one story structure, with each classroom having its own bathroom and sink. If it rained, you had both recess and physical education classes in your room, merely pushing the desks to the edges of the spaces. And as you read through the Centers for Disease Control recommendations moving into the fall, you cannot help but think that next year’s return to school might be quite similar to your adolescent experiences.

What Will School Look Like in the Fall?

Educators are nothing if they are not innovative, and it is safe to say that superintendents, principals, school boards, and the teachers themselves are busy rethinking not only the current spaces that they have available, but also the creation of new spaces. With such a short timeline to prepare, however, it is likely that many districts will have to consider the use of an industry that most recently has been used for quickly and efficiently creating warehouse offices. The use of prefabricated buildings has sometimes been seen as a temporary solution to a spacing issue for many school districts, but these easier to construct and more affordable options may be the way that students are allowed to gather under the new CDC guidelines.

Consider some of these facts and figures about the use of prefabricated and modular materials in warehouse offices and other spaces and imagine how these options can be transformed into an educational space solution going forward:

  • In addition to its used for warehouse offices, modular construction is becoming increasingly popular for hotels. For example, Marriott International pledged to modularly construct 13% of its North American developments in 2017. I should come as no surprise then that these spaces could also be used to a greater extend by school districts.
  • Permanent and relocatable are the two main types of modular construction, and it may take a combination of these two to make sure that districts are able to meet the space requirements they face.
  • Fortunately, modular methods allow for speedier construction times while still maintaining quality. One Chinese modular construction company, for instance, recently built a 57-story building in just 19 days. This speed will be required as many districts are facing a space shortage with a very short timeline to find a solution.
  • Projects can be completed much faster when using materials that are prefabricated, since 60% to 90% of all prefabricated construction occurs in a warehouse or factory.
  • As another advantage, Modular constructions reduce energy consumption during the building process by approximately 67% and reduces energy costs later on for occupants. These savings will be essential as districts work to create new solutions from budgets that were determined a year ago.
  • Going modular can reduce construction cost by 9% to 20%, according to the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia estimates.

When they say that everything old is new again, it will be important to note that while the challenges that face schools returning in the fall may eventually seem overwhelming, there may also be some advantages. The requirement for smaller class sizes in an effort to keep children safe and healthy, for instance, may mean the use of technology initially used to create warehouse offices, but the smaller student to teacher ratio will be advantageous.

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