Designing Hygienic Spaces for Faculty Members

While the full impact of COVID-19 on various aspects of life, business, and the arts may not be able to be assessed for some time, the various effects it has had on the way we conduct our day-to-day lives have been immediate in nearly every regard.

Chief among these areas of life affected by the pandemic is in education. As the spread of COVID progressed, authorities and planners in all types of education and learning scrambled to find an ideal solution to continuing the learning process for their students while putting as few people at risk as possible.

Many schools would turn to “distance learning”, a method of utilizing online platforms to bring the curriculum safely into a student’s home, while still allowing them to interact with their teachers. Despite the convenience involved, this quickly proved to not be a viable option for every school district or campus, and as a result many schools were forced to redesign their physical spaces to help encourage distancing and hygiene among their students, faculty, and staff.

Understandably, a lot of these changes focused on the more commonly used areas of educational space design, such as the hallways or classrooms themselves. Among the more common changes to space design included ‘traffic patterns’, or changes to the hallways and entryways to better manage the amount of people in one space at a time (as illustrated here by Fohlio), and a focus on using multipurpose spaces with modular space dividers to allow for safer separation of students from one another, as cited by Dezeen. While these changes to school design have been necessary, and largely useful, they don’t address every occupancy problem a school could encounter — namely, the use of faculty-only spaces.

Spaces designed for the use of the faculty, such as back offices and teachers’ lounges, are just as subject to the potential spread of illness and germs as the rest of the school, particularly for teachers that are still engaged with their students on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many schools are finding themselves paying more attention to the front-facing aspects of design (such as the aforementioned classrooms and cafeterias), and less on the areas their staff has to occupy day-to-day as they attempt to maintain some semblance of normalcy during the school year. Accordingly, safe faculty space design is still something of an art, not a science — but not one without its own advantages and challenges.

Safe Faculty Space Design, During and Post-Covid

The challenges faced by many faculty spaces, for better or for worse, more closely mirror the challenges faced by offices and other workspaces during the pandemic, more so than the issues faced by the rest of the school. Take, for example, the offices used by administrators. Particularly in cases where the office space is shared by multiple school employees — which, oftentimes, were made more ‘open’ in an attempt to appear more welcoming and accessible by students and visitors alike — a lot of the same design and safety concerns that applied to open offices and meeting spaces. Accordingly, many design ideas for open offices are equally applicable to faculty spaces now.

Larger spaces and increased boundaries between areas will become the norm, as explained by Vicus Partners. Even in administrative areas where the students are meant to feel comfortable talking to their principals, increased space between workers will likely become the norm in the post-pandemic environment to maintain current safety standards. Private, single-use desks will remain in use for different staff members, and stricter occupancy limits will need to be enforced for these spaces.

Similarly, the areas that used to be shared more frequently — primarily in reception areas and teacher’s lounges — will need to have a greater focus on individual safety and distancing than ever before. As the reception area (often referred to simply as “the office” in many schools, no matter how many roles it performs) functions similarly to the reception areas in other offices and businesses, you can apply many of the same strategies for keeping them safe and hygienic. For instance, this article from WorkDesign stresses how signage could be used to limit traffic into and out of the reception area at any time, particularly in schools with less controlled access, similar to the steps taken to monitor traffic patterns throughout the hallways and classrooms. This signage could also be used to enforce the limits of how many people can be in one area at a time, as these occupancy limits will likely be in place for some time, both during and after the pandemic.

Limiting access to these spaces won’t alway be an option, however, and as a result additional safety measures will need to be implemented in areas where multiple people will need to access it through their course of work. Recently, PolyVision discussed how collaborative spaces will need to take a more thoughtful approach to the sort of surfaces and materials they use; by combining sterile surfaces that don’t transmit disease as easily, with a ‘softer’ touch by using plants and other biophilic design implements, you can create rooms that still welcome work without increasing the risk of any communal illness.

This strategy can, and should, be applied to a number of faculty spaces inside a school, including the teacher’s lounge, shared offices, and even areas used by students and faculty alike such as the computer lab. The realities of work, especially in a communal education space such as many teachers and instructors find themselves working in, won’t always allow for ideal social distancing. By equipping these shared spaces with surfaces that are easier to clean and more resistant to germs in the first place, the spread of potentially infectious disease can be more easily curbed, even in spaces that don’t allow for more optimal traffic flow and promote increased safety.

At the end of the day, the main goal in all this is safety. Schools, faculty, and students alike are trying their best to get used to our new reality, and even after the vaccine rolls out, these safety precautions will likely linger for some time in school design — that is, if they don’t become permanent fixtures.

Freelance writer from just outside Detroit. Mostly movies and video games, sometimes grown-up stuff too.