Schools face hard choices in COVID-proofing the classroom of the future


By Gillian M. Cortez, Reporter

THE big question when schools reopen for in-person classes is whether the traditional configuration of a classroom — blackboard in front, space for student seating, and not much else — can continue after the pandemic. Will the classroom need to be redesigned, and who needs to be protected more — students, or teachers, some of whom may be elderly?

We have all seen pictures of some of the improvised solutions, like transparent screens in front of lecterns and spaced-out school desks, occupied on rotation by students who will sometimes need to attend online. But going forward, is a more permanent solution possible?

Structural engineer Jomari F. Tan said the immediate workarounds that come to mind involve, unavoidably, allocating space and regulating behavior.

Given the constraint of the current buildings that are available, “You want to control the people and adjust around the spaces… The focus is on the design being adjusted so the space for people is controlled, but it’s the people (who need to adjust) to the available space you have,” Mr. Tan told BusinessWorld.

He added that some schools may struggle with ensuring physical distancing within the confines of individual classrooms.

“In areas where density of students is not a problem, you can rearrange the seats (and) tables, but in places here in Manila like a big national high school, you cannot really do that,” he said.

Architect Carlo Martin L. Llanto told BusinessWorld, “I don’t think our infrastructure is ready… What’s the basis for school compliance? I don’t think there is a dependable audit to ascertain that.”

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the National Task Force Against the COVID-19, along with the Department of Education (DepEd) and Commission on Higher Education (CHED), share responsibility for guiding schools on how to resume face-to-face classes safely. It is not inconceivable that they may issue a one-size-fits-all policy regardless of school location, student population, and ability to manage infection risk.

“You can’t just have a sweeping policy. They can generalize targets for these spaces to be controlled and safe in this time of COVID, but you can’t guarantee that will address the concerns of the key stakeholders,” he said.

Smaller class sizes, in particular, are going to be a difficult business decision for schools because the final number an administrator arrives at determines many aspects of a school’s performance — how much revenue it ultimately earns, how many teachers it needs to hire, and the perception of quality that comes with a high teacher-student ratio.

Many of the measures tend to be cost items, like acrylic barriers, sanitizer dispensers, or floor markings to facilitate physical distancing, while others are operational, like scheduling rotations for students to attend class in person or online, or organizing walking traffic in corridors to maximize personal space.

A major item that cannot be ignored is ventilation, Mr. Llanto and Mr. Tan said.

“You want your air flow to be continuous and (not allow) the virus to be contained,” Mr. Tan said.

Some window designs known to promote better ventilation are awning and casement windows, both styles that open fully outward. Mr. Tan said leaving doors open also could promote better ventilation, adding, “Some classrooms I have seen do not use doors at all.”

Updating doors and windows will need careful study of the specific conditions in the site, according to Mr. Llanto.

“There’s a big difference between a school that’s in a big city that does not have a lot of wind versus places that have a lot of wind. There are schools that have large windows versus those that have small windows because right outside is a busy street and it’s noisy,” he said.

Recirculated air could pose risks, he added. If a school uses air conditioning, these may need to be retrofitted with effective filters.

While sanitization and cleaning remain necessary, school officials should also pay particular attention to hygiene in restrooms, while waiting areas and cafeterias should be compliant with health protocols.

Mr. Tan also said a school should also be a “relaxing” environment for students.

“Decluttering rooms could be useful. You just want to make sure that the environment is relaxing for students in classrooms, in corridors, except for posters that remind them to follow health protocols,” he added.

Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations (COCOPEA) Managing Director Joseph Noel M. Estrada said private institutions have expressed concerns about additional costs involved in reconfiguring their facilities, particularly in the face of the economic downturn that has depressed enrollment.

“If the government is very strict on that, it will entail costs,” Mr. Estrada told BusinessWorld.

“We all know that private school operations are dependent on the tuition paid by the parents (which helps determine) a school’s ability to invest,” he said.

He said schools are not at the moment expecting to undertake any major renovation of their facilities, with private institutions focused on enforcing health protocols. “Most” private schools will be able to manage at the level of behavior modification to minimize infection risk.

Mr. Estrada said COCOPEA has been engaging with the government since June 2020 on how to reopen schools. At the time, the Philippines was under a strict form of lockdown, a setting known as enhanced community quarantine.

He said the dialogue centered on studying international best practices. “As early as June last year, ASEAN countries were already reopening schools or at least had plans. However, conditions here were not favorable,” for such a reopening, he said.

Education Undersecretary Diosdado M. San Antonio said that even with face-to-face classes still prohibited for Basic Education, schools are preparing for when that happens.

“I know that many are almost ready, but I know there will be additional steps to take,” he told BusinessWorld, adding that the DepEd’s preparations and monitoring are not national but on an “area to area basis.”

The DepEd plans to pilot face-to-face classes to determine “how fast and expansive the implementation will be.”

“I’m sure the guidelines we will release… will comply with the IATF-EID and the Department of Health (DoH),” he said.

Mr. Estrada and Mr. San Antonio said the strategy will very likely involve student attendance in “shifts” to keep overall numbers low.

For colleges, the CHED released in February a joint memorandum circular with the DoH regarding the conduct of limited face-to-face classes. Among the first classes authorized for face-to-face mode in higher education were those involving health-related degree programs.

Mr. Estrada said COCOPEA will lobby the government to allow more degree programs to open next school year, particularly those with practical requirements and programs preparing students to be licensed by the Professional Regulation Commission.

How long the shift will take varies, though some of the timelines stretch far into the future.

“Colleges and universities can do a full scale (revamp) in three to five years, but when it comes to high schools and elementary schools, probably it is a generational effort… 10, 20, 25 years to change things up. It will take a long time before we can see how schools will look, and how they need to be built,” Mr. Estrada said.

Mr. Llanto said although standards for healthy buildings exist, like the WELL Building Standard of the International WELL Building Institute, and best practices with proven track records will quickly come to the surface as people adapt, “There’s only so much bricks and mortar and built spaces can do. We may need to look beyond that.” He noted that methods proven to be workable are likely to come to the fore eventually as policy makers, school administrators, students, and teachers adapt to their new reality.