Q&A: School design consultant: ‘A lot more viruses’ coming

This article originally appeared in Finance & Commerce.

As a building and planning firm that specializes in school development, design, and construction, Minneapolis-based ICS has plenty of work opportunities these days.

In recent months, the firm has advised school districts in Minnesota and beyond on how to prepare for the 2020-21 school year in the age of COVID-19. Goals include adapting buildings with proper ventilation, space management, and technology to keep students safe and healthy.

Arif Quraishi, ICS managing principal, touches on some of those strategies and best practices in the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Talk a little bit about your firm and what you specialize in.

A: We’ve been around for a little over 12 years and we provide comprehensive master planning mainly for the public sector. The majority of our clients are K-12, public sector universities. On an ongoing basis, we provide comprehensive commissioning services to ensure that they’re running their facility well.

I would say almost 70% of our business right now is based on K-12. The majority of that work is in Minnesota, but we do work in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. We do also have an office in the mid-Atlantic region in Philadelphia.

Q: What are some of the best practices you’re looking at as students return to school?

A: There’s a lot of not just best practices, but really common sense things that a lot of school districts have already adopted. One clearly revolves around ensuring that your facilities are operating well, and especially around ventilation.

One of the things we see happening a lot now in school districts is they’re able to go back into the computer systems, modify the ventilation and bring in a lot more outdoor air, which works out really well when you have partial occupancy. If you don’t have 30 kids in the classroom and you only have 15 or so and provide a lot more outdoor air into those rooms, the potential for infection transmission is a lot lower as you move forward. We’ve seen that across the board from metro school districts all the way to Greater Minnesota school districts.

I think a lot of them have gotten ahead of the game a little bit and purchased a lot of the equipment that’s needed. I think when COVID-19 first came in, you knew there was a shortage of sanitization equipment, there was a shortage of some of the materials that you needed. They’ve been able to really work through the co-op system that exists. I think that was actually put in place, if I remember correctly, by [Gov. Rudy] Perpich, a long time ago with these cooperative buying groups all over Minnesota.

And I think, finally, one of the biggest challenges school districts face is if somebody is positive for COVID, what are school districts supposed to do? I think it’s kind of exciting to see that in the last few weeks, the Department of Health has really stepped up with their protocols around what to do with contact tracing in a school environment.

One of the challenges was having the resources and now we have the resources in terms of materials. We have the resources in terms of expertise, and I think we have resources where at least standards and framework in terms of when you make decisions on bringing kids into classrooms or not and do distance learning. So I think those all are being put in place.

And clearly facilities are playing a big part in this. The fact that you’re not going to have a lot of collaborative spaces, you’re not going to have lunch typically served in a cafeteria. I think that all those things, incrementally, each one is going to have a positive impact to at least reduce the risk of transmission.

That doesn’t mean that transmission isn’t going to happen. But I think you’re going to be able to provide a much safer environment for people to feel confident that they can come back to school, and again, it all depends on what the infection rates are as you move forward.

So I think if you modify your facilities, you retool your facilities, you sanitize the spaces on a more regular basis, you provide the personal protective equipment that’s needed, you provide the sanitation that needed, I think we can control this well in the school environment.

Q: Do you think some of these trends will continue even after the pandemic?

A: When you look at COVID-19, we also had Ebola that we were able to control really well so that didn’t come into our country. But the fact of the matter is, there’s going to be more viruses, there’s going to be more infection. I think you’re going to see some significant changes in terms of how not only schools are designed, [but also how] hospitals are designed, how offices are retooled. We’ve had to completely retool our office to make sure that people feel safe to come into that environment and to do their work. Collaboration is important. It just has to be done a little bit different than it was in the past.

Irrespective of COVID, you start getting into that flu season, and people get exposure, and they’re out of school for five, six, seven days, and they’re missing that opportunity to learn. So I think you’re going to see a change in terms of how spaces are actually being used, which is challenging because you’re going to have to have bigger spaces, higher volume spaces, and then you’re going to have to make sure that you appropriately distance those in those classrooms, which means you need more square footage per person or per student.

I think we’re also going to see some new technologies come into play that are going to be very helpful. I think there is going to be technology around infection control in those classroom spaces.

Q: How does this go hand-in-hand with some of the current design trends? For instance, in some of the older schools that I attended years ago, we had to walk halfway through the building to get to the administrative office and now those spaces are closer to the front for security reasons.

A: Absolutely. I think controlling access to the facilities in a centralized way is very, very important. I think a lot of districts have been forced to change that in some of the old buildings because of security concerns.

I’ll use an example of Mora High School. It was a high school that was built originally in 1936, and had additions in the 1960s, 1970s, 1990. It’s a hodgepodge. I think it has over 18 different entrances that you can come in, so that’s a major problem because you’re unable to monitor. I think you’re going to see a lot more of temperature monitoring as you enter these facilities. You are going to have to make sure that people are coming in one place, you have to track the people coming in, you have to track which classrooms they’re in, how they’re moving. I think safe and secure entrances, as we call them, will be a big piece of this.

Q: Where do you see us doing in the way of bond referendums?

A: We’ve had a lot of conversations with leadership and school districts and they have some really significant needs in their facilities. Some of them are really immediate; some of them are safety-based. Some of them are related to educational focus. And I think that anytime there is uncertainty in the market, I think [districts are] extremely concerned about going out to the taxpayers, so I think that you’re going to see a pretty significant decline compared to a year ago in terms of bond referendums.

[At the same time], we’re seeing a decent again uptick in terms of projects exactly for COVID reasons: How do we make sure we modify facilities? How do we set up the barriers? How do we make sure we have safe entrances? How do we make sure we have technology to monitor? How do we modify our ventilation systems? All those projects are kind of moving forward, because they know that’s just the baseline that has to be done to ensure that you’re providing a safe environment for the kids.

For resources on how ICS is helping K-12 schools through the re-opening process, click here.