By Danielle Moore
Director, Archibus Marketing
SpaceIQ

The pivot to distance learning during COVID-19 has left many schools empty. For some students, it’s been over a year since they’ve seen the inside of a classroom. Since the onset of the pandemic, educational institutions of all types have been looking for ways to safely restart classes.

But those silent halls and rooms are not being ignored. Educational facilities managers are taking advantage of vacant buildings to perform routine upkeep and make structural, system, and aesthetic improvements. A powerful integrated workplace management system (IWMS) can help organize, schedule, and manage these projects start to finish.

Most educational facilities wait until the summer months to begin construction, renovation, and maintenance projects. Improvements and upkeep projects can be complex and difficult to manage while class is in session. With distance learning, facilities managers are finding plenty of opportunities to get jobs done outside the typical eight- or nine-week summertime window.

COVID-19 fuels introspection

School administrators are looking within to prioritize projects, specifically health and wellness improvements. HVAC system upgrades are top of mind for many. The forced air infrastructure in schools works overtime to deliver clean air to classrooms, study areas, cafeterias, gyms, and offices. Unfortunately, HVAC is likely one of the most under-maintained, antiquated systems in a school. According to a recent study by Lawrence Berkeley and UC Davis, only ~15% of classrooms in California meet the state’s ventilation standards for schools. Empty school rooms mean facilities managers can orchestrate much-needed updates and maintenance.

There’s also the future to consider. COVID-19 has forever marked how education is delivered. We’ll likely see ongoing sanitization standards and public health measures to help keep schools open if another crisis hits.

Now is the perfect time for schools to install hand sanitation and washing stations, realign floor layouts to accommodate social distancing, when needed, and create new facility protocols that foster health and safety for students and staff. That also can mean creating new strategies for teaching and how they affect the physical learning environment.

Highlight referendum projects

School closings are a prime opportunity for referendum projects. These plans—which have already been funded by taxpayers—are generally large and protracted. They can be disruptive to students when noisy construction work spills over into the school year.

Vacant buildings mean facilities managers can make vast headway-or even complete-bigger buildouts before classes resume. These projects can include everything from gymnasium and auditorium renovations to new campus buildings or the decommissioning of shuttered facilities. Even sport complex and parking lot improvements are more feasible.

Referendum projects across the country are gaining support as distance learning drags on. The Madison County School District in Wisconsin saw more than $350 million approved for school infrastructure in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic. It was not alone. Districts in TexasCaliforniaIllinois, and dozens of other states passed coronavirus-fueled school construction and renovation projects ranging from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. The bane of distance learning quickly rolled into opportunities for school improvements.

Small improvements matter, too

Those big, taxpayer-funded projects are just a beginning. Now is a perfect time to tackle the backlog of support requests from educators, administrators, and students. When classes are in session, many  repair-or-replace projects are backburnered. It’s not easy to resurface the gym floor when basketball games are scheduled. Nor is repaving the parking lots when spots are filled with student and staff vehicles.

With space to work, facilities managers can divide and conquer to empty the support ticket queue. No cars in the parking lots makes repaving a breeze. Canceled sporting events means a fresh coat of lacquer for the gym floor can dry and cure. Though small in scope, resolving support ticket requests will make a huge difference to teachers and students when classes resume.

The silver lining of distance learning

School facility projects accomplished during COVID-19 come with a greater sense of purpose. Instead of a race against the clock to complete projects before students return to class, administrators can focus on coordinating projects from a value standpoint. It means looking at improvements and maintenance from a long-term benefits perspective, as opposed to strictly a cost-benefit or time-sensitive approach. It’s not “Which projects will be less disruptive to students?”; it’s “Which projects will deliver the most benefits?”

This opportunity for improvement to school facilities spans every type of institution—from K-8 to high school to college campuses and even satellite learning centers. When the bell rings and students come back to class after the long hiatus, they’ll find themselves in a learning environment that makes that return seamless. It may not be the school they left, but it’ll be one they can learn to love.

Keep reading: Facilities Management Software for Schools