Technology Drives Safer Back-to-School Efforts Amidst COVID-19
By Ian Morley
Chief Product Officer
What is your new student capacity under social distancing?
This simple question can flummox even the most seasoned campus planner or school district facilities specialist. Many smaller universities and larger school districts don’t have a ready way to access this information, which can complicate efforts to ensure a safe school year.
With an integrated workplace management system (IWMS), education leaders can uncover important insights about their space inventory. This data empowers schools to quickly identify, modify, and repurpose square footage to satisfy COVID guidelines while supporting student learning needs.
Establish Usable Square Footage
Understanding revised building and classroom capacity based on COVID-19 impacts is a unique challenge. It’s not a simple mathematical formula run on a spreadsheet. Space planners need to aggregate data from multiple buildings across an entire district or campus. Educational leaders depend on accurate insights in order to safely bring back students—yet many do not have a system that can collect and analyze this important information.
The process starts with establishing a precise overview of your school’s space inventory. You need to know what type of space you have, how much square footage it contains, where it is located, and its condition. Even the American College Health Association (ACHA) recommends ascertaining “allowable occupancy in order to control workflow and/or establish maximum attendance.” But without being able to view space inventory in an easy-to-digest format, schooler planners have a difficult time implementing social distancing.
And it’s not just classroom spaces—schools are appropriating rooms that were once gathering areas and turning them into learning zones. Ancillary areas like gymnasiums, auditoriums, theater stages, and music rooms are prime spots to spread out students. Even a cafeteria can be transformed into a classroom under these circumstances. This strategy is echoed by the ACHA, which encourages schools to “post maximum occupancy in common break areas and configure to accommodate appropriate physical distancing.” This information is not only essential for applying physical distancing but also tracking areas that require sterilization and disinfection.
Real-World Education Applications
Bob Lawn, a CAFM Specialist with California’s Long Beach Unified School District, oversees 87 sites. His experience implementing social distancing underscores some of the unexpected complications that can arise. His department used a 20% reduction of classroom capacity to account for shelving, cabinets, etc. and estimate the usable classroom space across the district, which resulted in a decrease of students from 30 to 16. To gain a more accurate percentage, he calculated each room’s usable square footage by subtracting space occupied by woodwork, desks, and shelves.
“By making the necessary calculations in Archibus, we established that each student needs 46 square feet. That’s when we had to start thinking about alternative spaces beyond traditional classrooms. So we ran an analysis for spaces over 100 square feet to give us a new list of learning areas to work with,” Lawn explained.
Michael Chambers, a design and construction project manager for St. John’s University, ran into the same challenge of calculating class capacity. He stresses that it’s not enough to assume seat count will be reduced by a fixed 30%. For example, an architectural feature like a column could easily affect the layout.
“We also needed to locate all common spaces on campus, especially since they will likely be empty through the fall. Using the [Archibus] Space Console solution, we could determine if those areas have the appropriate infrastructure, such as HVAC and electric, to accommodate a classroom or online learning resource,” said Chambers.
Locate and Mitigate Hot Spots
In addition to classrooms, COVID-19 is forcing modifications for faculty and support staff spaces. Everything from break rooms and reception areas to benching and shared offices need to be scrutinized for exposure risks. It is imperative to quickly identify where people are in close quarters and what solutions can reduce risk in these hot spots.
For example, new features in Archibus V25.2 allow users to put a 6-foot radius around each desk to determine where there are conflicts. This provides an accurate list of people who need to be moved. In many cases, layout modifications aren’t feasible because campus space is already near capacity pre-COVID.
“Based on the insights from Archibus, we decided to implement shift schedules for departments,” Chambers explained. “We classify spaces as essential, reservable, and work shifts. Now we have reservable spaces for touchdown spots, rotating schedules, and every day seats.”
Both Chambers and Lawn leveraged data from an IWMS to run space scenarios. Without this type of software, however, they would be forced to use spreadsheets, manual measurements, and other cumbersome methods—none of which ultimately provide the critical insights schools are depending on to modify their layouts.
“These tools are allowing us to solve needs,” Chambers stressed. “This has been essential to us feeling prepared and ready to welcome faculty, students, and admin back to some form of normal. We can leverage our data to answer and solve tough questions in preparation for reopening.”
Keep reading: What is a Smart IWMS and What are its Features?