Although lockdowns have lifted enough for kids to head back to school in some places, others are holding off. The UK and Dubai, for instance, won’t see the return of (all) students until at least September. In the next few weeks, the British government will release safety recommendations for the reopening of the country’s educational facilities. According to an article published by BBC, ‘under current rules imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, class sizes are limited to a maximum of 15 pupils, but the education secretary said ministers were looking at “expanding those bubbles to include the whole class”’. Teachers’ unions worry the strategy is ill-considered – that there’s no possibility of social distancing for larger class sizes.

Realizing that new measures will impact how we use space, many designers are being proactive. Rather than sit and wait to be rebriefed, they’re coming up with their own visions of the post-pandemic landscape. Pallavi Dean’s Dubai-based studio Roar, for example, has prepared an independent research report on how education spaces might look from now on. The studio is also aware that designers don’t have all the answers, which is why the White Paper – 7 Perspectives: How COVID-19 will Transform the Design of Education Spaces – includes contributions from a doctor, a psychologist, the former CEO of an investment firm, academic researchers and, perhaps most importantly, teachers.

Header: Future-proof education interiors could take cues from co-working spaces, with café-style areas for socializing. Roar’s University of Sharjah in UAE is pictured. | Top: Schools should increase the number of agile teaching spaces. At the University of Sharjah, the Pixel series from Bene can toggle between amphitheatre and seminar seating. | Bottom: Longlisted for Learning Space of the Year in the 2020 Frame Awards, Roar’s Nursery of the Future in Dubai shuns traditional classrooms in favour of flexible and adaptable ‘learning studios’ that accommodate different styles of teaching.

The crisis has revealed the feasibility of online education, leading to the broad consensus among the report’s contributors that some form of hybrid learning – partly digital, partly physical – will be the future of education. But there was no doubt that school buildings will remain: ‘If there’s one thing this crisis has taught us, it’s that physical space matters,’ observed one panellist. The report stated that aside from practical teaching and learning factors, benefits of physical space include socializing among students, the symbolic significance of a building in academic rituals like graduation, and extra-curricular activities such as sport and the arts.

Even though the respondents agreed that physical education spaces will remain, they also believe they’ll never be the same again – and that that’s a good thing. ‘Don’t waste a crisis’ were one panellist’s words. ‘The pandemic is forcing educators to rethink all aspects of formal education, from pedagogy to technology to economics to building design. This reset can have a positive long-term impact . . . In normal times several factors (inertia, resistance to change, vested interests in maintaining the status quo etc.) can be barriers to reform in any field. Extreme situations can dismantle these barriers.’

The paper’s contributors concurred that quick design fixes can ‘COVID-proof’ schools and help them re-open. Suggested solutions included having fewer kids per classroom (the indisputable winner, with 46 per cent of respondents ranking it most important); creating new classrooms by repurposing gyms, canteens and corridors; signage and graphics to remind children to wash their hands and keep their distance; touchless toilets; antimicrobial materials; and HEPA filters.

The first two points go hand-in-hand: fewer kids per classroom means more or alternate space is needed to accommodate the overflow. Several contributors highlighted that redistribution and flexibility in education spaces was already beginning to happen pre-pandemic, and that the current situation will simply accelerate their adoption. One panellist’s organization is looking to reduce corridors from the traditional ratio of 20 to 25 per cent, hoping to reduce it to 5 per cent. Corridors would then become amenities and serve ‘a real purpose to the interior’. The consensus was to reduce low value-add spaces, such as those used for only a short period each day or that take up a disproportionate amount of teaching space, and increase high-value-add spaces such as specialist hands-on facilities like labs and music rooms, or agile teaching spaces with flexible and movable furniture and walls.

Top: Corridors can add more value when used for more than transit, such as at Roar’s Sharjah English School. | Bottom: A common sight in co-working spaces, clusters of seating form breakout areas at Sharjah English School.

The one overriding source of inspiration? Co-working spaces. Those behind the report wanted to float the idea of ‘a “trendy” design concept that we thought might provoke a backlash. Surprisingly, there was broad enthusiasm (83%) for the “WeWork-ification’ of education spaces – particularly among teachers (85%).’ What might that look like in practice? Think individual work pods for deep concentration, one-on-one meeting spaces, breakout areas for small groups and café-style social spaces.

All of these guidelines come with a caveat: innovation should be inclusive. The focus, therefore, should be on affordable schools. ‘While many premium schools were already embracing blended learning,’ states the report, ‘it has been a steeper slope for many affordable and mid-market schools, which often have less space per student and less technology, in school and at home. Designers must “do more with less” to make sure that all students are served in a COVID and post-COVID world.’

Read our mid-quarantine interview with Pallavi Dean discussing her predictions for the future of work and design here.