The new facilities challenges

With children in England set to return to school, how have educational institutions increased and optimised their spaces?

While the government deemed it unnecessary for “significant adaptations” to be made to school sites in order to welcome children back, I think most schools would agree a huge amount of work has gone into getting school facilities up to scratch to keep everyone safe. From magicking new classrooms out of existing space to implementing whole-site signage, the challenges have been considerable.

And every school is different; what will work for a small nursery might not be suitable for a larger, all-through school – which has made it all the more difficult.

Small schools have, in some cases, had less changes to make. As a small nursery and prep school with around 90 pupils, Falcons School for Girls has been able to put parents’ concerns at ease during the pandemic with its small class sizes and spacious premises. This meant they were able to welcome back all children on 22 June to finish the summer term, without too many changes having to be made.

Headmistress Sara Williams-Ryan says: “Our small group sizes and extensive indoor and outdoor space mean that we had capacity to accommodate all pupils as soon as they were allowed to return without needing too many changes. We are also lucky to have two very large playgrounds at our disposal, each one with a clear division so children can be allocated an area where they can play.

We have been able to eat lunch regularly outside and make use of the outdoor space with extra break times, to allow the children the opportunity to play and socialise together – Sara Williams-Ryan, headmistress, Falcons School for Girls

“We have added sanitiser stations by the front doors of all four school buildings and have changed our bins to pedal bins so that tissues can be disposed of easily and safely. We have also increased the cleaning around the school, have provided class teachers with cleaning products to enable them to regularly wipe the different resources in their rooms and have increased our cleaners’ hours to ensure that all touch points are regularly disinfected throughout the day.

“We have been fully capable of maintaining a social distance due to our spacious facilities and small class sizes – even when the entire school returned on 22 June. We have been able to eat lunch regularly outside and make use of the outdoor space with extra break times, to allow the children the opportunity to play and socialise together.”

Major operation

Reigate Grammar School, on the other hand, with pupil numbers around 1,000, has had to get creative with classrooms. To gain extra space to teach all of its pupils, the school turned its sports hall into a classroom, used outdoor spaces as classrooms and has plans to rent a marquee for the autumn term.

A number of other measures have been brought in, such as one-way systems, extra handwash basins, removing certain desks from classrooms, desk dividers, signage, closing down social spaces such as common rooms, and anti-bacterial cleaning.

Head Shaun Fenton said: “This has been a major operation, but that is as it should be because we want a safe school for staff and students to return. We are all desperately looking forward to schools re-opening. September can’t come soon enough.”

Above and below: Reigate Grammar School has brought in many measures to keep everyone safe

Jenny Neild, executive director at the Stephen Perse Foundation, says the logistical organisation of the school ahead of September has been challenging, having to find additional sports facilities and organise separate entrances with handwashing facilities to ensure students don’t mix across year groups.

“Preparing for these major changes in school operations has been an endurance exercise, especially for our support staff involved in estates, IT and administration who have worked hard behind the scenes since the beginning of the year and continue to do so,” said Neild.

Some independent schools, fortunate enough to have large amounts of space, have been able to offer their facilities to local schools. Stamford School, for example, gave Malcolm Sargent Primary School exclusive use of one of its teaching blocks as the school was unable to house all of its pupils safely.

Outdoor opportunities

Some schools have had to look at new buildings to relieve pressure on space, whether it’s used as a sports facility, chapel, canteen, staff room or classroom.

TG Escapes creates modular classrooms for schools (see main picture), and consultant Mark Brown says stand-alone buildings have a number of benefits, especially in light of the pandemic. “There will be a need to make more use of the outdoors and control the movement and mixing of different student groups. In some cases, additional buildings could help provide a solution,” says Brown.

He explains that modular buildings can have easy access to the outdoors, which has become more important than ever during the pandemic. Stand-alone buildings can also be designed with multiple access points to control the flow of people in and out.

Furthermore, hand-sanitising facilities can be built in, interiors can be finished with easy-to-clean materials and adaptive ventilation can be fitted with hygienic filters. For schools that also want to consider their environmental impact, buildings can make use of systems such as sun pipes, solar PV and smart lighting. Brown adds: “A new building could be a less costly and more flexible solution to the Covid-19 challenge.”

This has been a major operation, but that is as it should be because we want a safe school for staff and students to return – Shaun Fenton, head, Reigate Grammar School

Another method of increasing space is temporary structures. Architecture firm Curl la Tourelle Head (CLTH) has developed a design concept to address the facilities challenges that have come with Covid-19. Their pop-up, tent-like structures can host different classroom set-ups. Clockwise movements within the structures are encouraged, in a similar approach to Buddhist stupas, to avoid crossing over between individuals.

The firm also said it would reuse marquees and portable bathroom facilities from cancelled summer festivals.

The concept has been trialled at Manorfield Primary School and, as a result, the school gained at least 25% more socially distanced capacity. The firm has also been commissioned by BEMAT Academies to install large-scale temporary structures on a number of their sites in Essex from late August onwards. The units will provide space for extended dining and learning.

“This is by no means our answer to what classrooms should look like in the future,” says Wayne Head, director at CLTH.

“We wanted to use this as a catalyst for further discussions, to rethink how schools can be designed and used beyond Covid-19.”

It’s clear that schools have been working tirelessly to get their facilities ready for children come September and risen to the challenges of Covid-19 with a great deal of creativity.

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