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Secret Agents for Smart: Thoughts on COVID-19 and Early Childhood Education

John Noble

COVID-19 continues to place untold stress and unprecedented challenges on every level of education. However, those involved in early childhood education face unique complications given the typical three-year-old’s impatience with mask-wearing, the get-on-the-ground-and-roll-around nature of their learning, and, of course, their propensity to put their hands and mouths on, well, just about everything.

All of this has been on my mind even more than usual as my colleagues and I put the finishing touches on construction documents for a 58,000-square-foot early childhood learning center that we have designed for Mt. Healthy City Schools in Southwest Ohio. We hope COVID-19 will be in the rearview mirror when this center opens for the 2021-22 school year but, in the meantime, SHP is working closely with the center’s leaders to ensure the new facility is equipped to slow the spread of disease.

This attention to detail is necessary because, in addition to worrying about the spread of influenza and the common cold at ECE centers, we have to assume that other pandemics await us in the future. Just recently, Gavi (a vaccine alliance that helps inoculate nearly half the world’s children) has highlighted 10 diseases to watch, including Lassa Fever and Monkeypox. It seems certain that the “new normal” that COVID-19 has created will likely just become our everyday, run-of-the-mill normal.

Regardless of what lies ahead, it’s hard not to feel bad today for those little ones in ECE under our current pandemic conditions. Consider just a couple of the challenges they encounter every day at school: Adults in masks can seem scary and, to make matters worse, these children can’t find comfort in their favorite plush animals, which have all been stored away due to the difficulty of cleaning them. The boundless energy of these creative young learners needs to be restrained at every turn to manage disease transmission, but it’s hard to stay in one place when every ounce of your being is telling you to run and jump. Yes, it’s a tough time to be under five.

Of course, these conditions are also a strain on the ECE teachers who have to adjust their lesson plans and modes of interaction. And let’s not forget about the parents who have had to adapt every aspect of their lives and contend with the worry of COVID-19 making an appearance at their child’s school and perhaps even in their home.

I have begun to think that we architects must, first and foremost, be secret agents for smart. 

Architects: Secret Agents for Smart

In these unusual, challenging times, I have found myself thinking of a teacher who once told me that architects’ most important charge was to be “secret agents for beauty.” It’s an interesting concept, and, yes, aesthetics are an essential element of our profession. But I have begun to think of that charge more broadly: that we architects must, first and foremost, be secret agents for smart.

Smart architecture and design can help curtail the spread of disease. Here’s where science and data along with a healthy dose of common sense,  can — and should — guide us.

 

Outdoor Learning

Sunlight is a significant source of UV exposure. Moreover, the sun’s UV light stimulates the production of vitamin D in every child who is exposed to it. Many studies indicate vitamin D is a critical factor in the body’s ability not just to fight the virus, but to regulate the scale of its response so that it is proportional and does not spiral into an autoimmune over-reaction.

SHP has designed shared atelier spaces that combine indoor and outdoor learning classrooms at Mt Healthy Early Childhood Education center

Not only can being outside help reduce disease transmission, but it also opens up, literally and metaphorically, a wide array of interesting and enriching ways to learn and play. At Mt. Healthy, we created an Atelier, a project-based learning studio with indoor and outdoor spaces that comprises a kit of shared resources for every pair of classrooms. We anticipate that the controlled visible exterior space will serve as a natural extension of everyday learning and will help make going outside part of the moment-to-moment flow of the day.

In addition to the Ateliers, the Mt. Healthy ECE center will offer a variety of dedicated outdoor learning spaces on its campus. Several acres of outdoor learning space will highlight different ecosystems—such as woods, a grassland, and even a bog with swamp creatures like tadpoles and frogs—in which to explore, discover and learn. Many of these spaces will be protected from the elements, allowing outdoor learning to happen year-round.

 

Mobile handwashing stations help stop the spread of infectious diseases in early childhood education centers.Handwashing

Handwashing is critical for disease prevention—and a crucial life-skill for the young, I-have-to-touch-everything set. The challenge in an existing school is that we must work with the plumbing they have. In schools currently in design or construction, plumbing is one of the highest-dollar elements and we don’t want to over-invest in excessive plumbing infrastructure.

Fortunately, there are self-contained, no-plumbing-required handwashing stations available that can be placed anywhere, including in lobbies, so students can wash their hands as they enter the school. Because they are basically furniture, these stations can be moved around to meet changing needs and then put in storage or repurposed once local health conditions are such that extra handwashing is deemed unnecessary.

 

Ventilation and IAQ

Another way to help control disease spread in ECE facilities is to carefully control the way air moves through the space, introducing clean air down low where three- and four-year-old bodies spend their time. It’s a strategy called displacement ventilation, and it’s typically seen in office spaces, where raised floor systems afford the designer a great deal of flexibility to locate registers in convenient locations.

But those raised floors are very expensive — and we’d rather invest those dollars in teaching and learning spaces. So at SHP, our engineering team has been exploring a more cost-effective approach using chases and ducts to supply air at the floor and return it to the ceiling, where it naturally wants to go anyway. It’s just one of several indoor air quality strategies we have been weighing in the midst of COVID-19.

 

There are, of course, plenty of other smart ways to help diminish disease spread in ECE centers — and, for that matter, every school. The secret agents at SHP will continue to do our part to find, and in some cases even create, smart solutions that make for healthier learning for students of all ages.

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