Public School Facilities Planning in
the Era of COVID-19 Guide
At Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB), we closed our middle and high school doors on March 13. What followed was a mix of remote learning and tiered supports to help roughly 800 scholars in grades 6 through 11 continue their studies through the end of the school year (2020-2021 is the first school year that we have grade 12).
In mid April, with New York City in the throes of a formidable COVID-19 outbreak, we started our planning for the 2020-2021 school year, taking a deep dive into research on different strategies that safeguard health and support learning. We also consulted experts in diverse fields ranging from health to design to education to equity. Finally, we embarked on a reflection and discernment process to rebuild a learning environment that prioritizes and protects the safety, health, and well-being of everyone in our community.
That journey enabled us to reopen our doors in August. This guide chronicles our experience.
Over the course of 16 weeks between April and August, we held more than 150 meetings (including a set of intensive working sessions, or "charrettes" in design parlance) to gather insights from industry experts, government officials, architects, urban designers, educators, staff members, parents, scholars, and many others. Our core partners included Urban Projects Collaborative (UPC), a company that supports capital projects that improve quality of life and a better built environment, and five design firms: Gensler, PBDW, PSF Projects, SITU, and WXY. We also engaged Tiffany Kimmel Carlin as an architect-in-residence and collaborated with AKA Studios, the architecture firm that designed LAB’s high school. Later in the process, we welcomed educational industry experts including the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, EdTogether, Public Impact, The New Teacher Project, InnovateEDU, ASU Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College,City Year, EL Education, The Forum for Youth Investment, Transcend, Turnaround for Children, The Center for Black Educator Development, Character Lab, Dr. Anindya Kundu, The Equity x Innovation Lab, Q.E.D., Seton Montessori Institute, and Dezudio.
We intentionally sought to make these charrettes safe zones to share our hopes, fears, concerns, and ideas, placing a value on vulnerability as an avenue to learning and growth. As a group, we set out to answer key questions:
What will classrooms look like and feel like?
How can we keep students and teachers safe on their way to and from school?
How will we honor scientific and public health guidelines?
From these meetings emerged four mission-critical documents: a back-to-school facilities tool kit, an instructional program scheduling map, a playbook for success coaching, and a guidebook to create learning environments that build identity and agency in this new world. These documents—which are available under "Projects"—have become our foundational texts for the COVID-19 era.
We embrace the importance of iteration; we have honed specific practices and protocols for the new school year through feedback and insights since we published these tools. We researched suggestions for school facilities modifications and developed our own guide to support the needs of all learners. We established strategies for physical distancing. We also explored options for serving students with special needs, and how to facilitate learning despite the disruptions to the new classroom space. We then developed detailed plans for implementing best practices. Ultimately, we organized these new approaches into four basic categories:
strategies to prevent the spread;
strategies to contain the spread;
strategies to facilitate learning and continual improvement; and
strategies to establish an ongoing, iterative process.
In addition to applying these strategies at LAB, our goal has been to codify and share our findings so other schools can benefit from our strategic reopening process, planning, and approach. We recognize there is no one solution for every school from Brooklyn to Bakersfield, but we are committed to participating in practical conversations from which we can all learn.
We hope you find the insights shared in this resource helpful.