While many commercial real estate sectors have been heavily impacted by COVID-19, new construction and modernization projects for K-12 education have remained strong. As a result of the pandemic, many schools are faced with the challenge of ensuring that their facility includes sufficient building space to comply with federal and state reopening guidelines and the move toward smaller class sizes. Additionally, there’s a growing need for renovations to help improve ventilation systems and reduce the risk of transmission in shared spaces such as restrooms, classrooms and play areas. The shift towards digital learning has also reinforced the need for technological enhancements to ensure schools have the infrastructure and equipment to support their students in today’s learning environment.
Currently, C.W. Driver Companies is working on a wide variety of K-12 projects, including the ground-up construction of Granada Hills Charter’s new $34 million transitional kindergarten through eight grade facility as well as the modernization of eight different elementary, junior high and high school sites for Chino Valley Unified School District. In total, C.W. Driver Companies has completed more than 130 K-12 projects in its 100-year history, making us keenly in tune with trends and evolutions in the space. From our perspective, here are some key considerations for K-12 construction currently:
Technology Advancements for Modern Learning
Amid an increased reliance on technology and the pivot to virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, technology integration is more critical now than ever in K-12 classrooms. We’ve witnessed a demand for smart screens, which can be easily plugged into lap-tops, in place of the traditional chalkboards and whiteboards used for instruction.
Comprehensive audio-visual systems are also being utilized to ensure all technology runs smoothly and can be incorporated with the school’s paging system. To support the expanded use of technology in the classroom setting, ample plugs and charging stations are being applied in common areas and classrooms, enabling students and staff to charge their laptops and other digital devices.
For example, we led a comprehensive modernization of a 30-year-old campus for Brywood Elementary School in Irvine, California to help move the school into the 21st-century learning environment. This included the addition of a new, multi-purpose classroom building for performing arts, technology integration and new innovation labs, design labs and creative learning spaces. Classroom and collaboration spaces now feature sophisticated technology including large display screens, additional charging stations, ceiling outlets and media centers for creative projects.
Designing for Flexibility
Flexible furniture and classroom configurations are key to optimizing modern learning environments. The ability to shift from a two-to a five-desk configuration, depending on the task at hand, helps facilitate both group and individual learning activities. The more flexibility classrooms and other learning areas have, the more customized each lesson or activity can be.
In the COVID-19 era, mobilization also permits spaces to be reconfigured to support the need for six-foot social distancing and hybrid instruction and allows classrooms to be used for other purposes.
Driver is constructing a K-5 technology-oriented and flexible education facility in the Mission Valley area of San Diego, complete with adaptable learning spaces. The new school will be comprised of four buildings, including a two-story administration, flex-classroom, makerspace and library building; a one-story multipurpose building that includes a food service facility and two classroom buildings featuring a total of 24 teaching spaces and a variety of indoor-outdoor learning areas with roll-up doors for maximum flexibility. As part of the unique design, Menifee Valley Middle School’s new library will include a flexible plan configuration, collaboration spaces to facilitate group work and soft seating areas for students seeking a quiet, comfortable place to study.
Security continues to be a key focus for K-12 construction projects, and many campuses are upgrading their safety procedures through modernization projects. Having a single point of entry, facilitated by either the school’s design or added fencing, helps ensure all visitors are vetted before entering the campus. Cameras throughout the buildings and full campus panic lockdown systems can also help keep students and staff safe in emergency situations. Keyless access via AD-400 door locks is another important feature that’s introduced to restrict access.
COVID-19 & Outdoor Spaces
While each California school district is adapting to the pandemic differently, with some back in person, others adopting hybrid models and most still preparing for students to return, many schools are incorporating more contactless items and design features that will help reduce exposure to COVID-19. This includes touchless soap dispensers and faucets, automatic or foot-operated door openers, plexiglass dividers and reconfigured kitchens to allow for more distance between staff members when warming food to help reduce potential contamination.
Many schools are also prioritizing additional outdoor space to accommodate social distancing and allow for increased outdoor physical, social and learning activities. While increased outdoor space was a trend even before the pandemic — with research indicating improved student engagement via outdoor education — it has become especially vital now as schools search for solutions to provide a safe and socially-distant learning environment.
Mitigating Disruption Via Onsite Procedures
With modernization projects, especially those where the students will be onsite during construction, there are special requirements for Live Scan background checks where we utilize time station to ID/badge all workers and monitor and document all activity on site. Additionally, it’s vital that special attention be given to separate workers and students with barriers to minimize potential interaction and disruption. Not only does this help safeguard students and workers, but it enables the project team to minimize distraction for students and staff as well as the local community.
All of these trends are key factors shaping K-12 construction projects and are projected to continue even amid the pandemic.
John Kately is a project executive at C.W. Driver Companies with 20-plus years of experience overseeing and managing award-winning K-12 project across California, from a $34 million TK-8 facility in Granada Hills to the modernization of eight different school sites for Chino Valley Unified School District.