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It happened in the blink of an eye. One day, schools were packed with kids shuffling down hallways between classes, teachers chasing down homework assignments, and administrators fielding parent requests and student events. Then everything changed. The halls were empty. Administrators cancelled graduations, proms, and award ceremonies, their attention (and worry) shifting to districtwide Wi-Fi access and health department standards. Teachers were asked to rewrite their curriculum at the drop of a hat, regardless of the way it would impact individualized education plans or in-person instruction. And students were told to avoid physical contact with friends, take ownership of their daily routines, and stay home. For many, this meant losing their only two square meals a day.

The future of education is forever changed in the wake of a global pandemic. Now, we must prepare to answer questions for how we will ensure our students stay fed during times of quarantine, how we will protect students and staff within our buildings when they return, and how we will afford the necessary changes needed to re-make our schools and learning environments into places that prioritize health, wellness, and sustainability. As the evidence evolves around best practices to keep us safe during the pandemic, we have to reframe our future plans around where we can go and how we can safely navigate the new global reality. Making informed decisions based on the latest evidence rather than reacting in a fear-based manner can help schools make choices on how to prioritize strategies as short-, medium-, and long-term interventions.

A host of new measures will need to be put in place to protect the health and safety of our teachers, students, and staff should they be required to return to school before a vaccine or effective treatment is available. Many of these measures – physical distancing, personal protective equipment, and de-densified classrooms – are interim measures, intended to be temporary. We need to put flexible interventions into place that can be discontinued once the virus threat is contained. Other measures are evergreen strategies that should be lasting. These measures are the silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic for the education sector. Enhanced air ventilation, touch-free bathrooms, improved cleaning practices, and emergency preparedness are all strategies that the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI™), by way of the WELL Building Standard, recommended long before COVID-19 surfaced. A growing body of research has shown that improving air, thermal comfort, lighting, and acoustics can have a measurable impact on everything from problem-solving to retention (Allen et al., 2016; Gaihre et al., 2014). Six months into distance learning leaves us in a critical position. We must enact short-term strategies immediately to ensure a safe return. The lasting changes that can take more time to incorporate will be outstanding for the environments we create and beneficial to education overall.

Like many in education, we at IBWI appreciate the collective pause to reconsider how our places, practices, programs, and protocols across all building types will need to evolve to uphold the health and safety of every person, most importantly where our children learn and grow.

Our schools are hubs for our communities and returning to them is a necessary part of returning to “normal.” School facilities, if adapted and tended to properly, can act as frontline caregivers in the fight against COVID-19. Coupled with policies, practices, and programming, they can function as caretakers of our physical, social, and emotional health out of quarantine and into the future. IWBI’s WELL Building rating system supports schools and other spaces in doing exactly that.

WELL introduces a holistic 10 concept framework and seeks to improve the human experience of buildings and environments through design-based interventions, human-focused policies, and building maintenance and operational protocols. The evidence-based strategies within WELL complement many strategies employed in green buildings. Here is the key difference: while green buildings focus first and foremost on planetary health, WELL buildings focus on the health of people. So, while green schools focus on water efficiency, WELL schools focus on water quality. Whereas green schools approach daylighting from the perspective of saving energy, WELL schools focus on the impact of daylight on our mood, energy levels, and sleep cycles. Green buildings and healthy buildings go hand-in-hand. The majority of WELL certified projects to-date have also achieved a green building certification like LEED. In fact, we think of the healthy buildings movement as the “second wave of sustainability” – a different way to express the same imperative, one that taps into our universal desire to be healthy, for our families to be well, for our organizations and communities to thrive. At scale, human health and planetary health are inextricable.

How Can We Make Schools Safer and Healthier?

We already know that learning environments have a direct and immediate impact on a student’s ability to succeed, not to mention their health and wellbeing. Even moderate changes to the environment can promote healthier outcomes, lower absenteeism, enhance cognitive performance, and improve productivity and attention (Allen et al., 2016; Gaihre et al., 2014). Research that underpins the WELL Building Standard outlines several key improvements that school systems can make to offer spaces that further enhance human health and well-being.

WELL Certification with its 100-point scorecard of unique interventions is a long-term roadmap for success. We have launched the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management that all organizations, especially schools, can use as an immediate first step in re-opening facilities. This rating system focuses on operational policies, maintenance protocols, and emergency plans to address a post-COVID-19 environment. The strategies have been informed by existing features within the WELL Building Standard, the IWBI COVID-19 Task Force, and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pursuant to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Institutes of Health, and leading academic and research institutions. In addition to best practices that address infectious disease transmission, this rating system is applicable for other major acute health and safety threats that can be mitigated through facilities operations and management.

We will eventually reopen our schools. In doing so, we must plan for enhancements to operational protocols and policies and to the buildings themselves in advance of our return. As a start, schools should explore ways to improve air circulation and ventilation to control indoor pollutants and offer greater protection to students and staff. Buildings that have been unpopulated for an extended period of time will require a flush of their water systems to ensure water is free from potential contaminants.

The WELL Building Standard can help school administrators identify additional changes they can make to create health-focused learning environments. Some of these changes include finely tuned thermal comfort to help students focus, better lighting solutions for improved sleep (Mott et al., 2012), the use of safe building materials in construction and renovation to reduce environmental toxins, design features that encourage activity and movement throughout the day, access to healthier foods, quiet spaces for study and focus (Pujol et al., 2014), and access to nature, indoors and out. Layered on top of these design elements should be operational protocols to introduce, for example, improved cleaning solutions, along with human focused policies that address things such as wellness education and programming for teachers, students, and staff. Largely focused on preventative measures, WELL is especially critical at the elementary school level, promoting healthy behaviors for children that can lead to a lifetime of good practices.

You cannot design your way out of a viral outbreak. We must go beyond bridging capital and operating budgets to address the current challenges. Through a combination of focused improvements found in the WELL Building Standard, district leaders can make significant advancements in prevention, preparedness, resilience, and recovery. The best solutions come from blending what the building can do with what the organization can do to support human health and well-being. This will require greater collaboration between stakeholders and breaking down traditional silos. We have to bring facilities managers into the conversation along with school nurses, administrators, janitorial staff, parents, students, and educators, all of whom must collaborate on human-centered enhancements at scale. If we can figure out how to break down these silos, then deeper collaboration may end up being another silver lining brought to us by COVID-19.

WELL is a Roadmap to Improved Learning Spaces

Our buildings can and should promote the health and safety of the people who occupy them. It is critically important for the young people who attend our schools, along with the staff and administrators who support them. WELL provides a clear way to quantify healthy efforts at our schools as we look to return to classrooms in the wake of COVID-19.

Ohio’s Orrville School District recently became the first K-12 school district to commit to make changes that advance healthier learning environments through the WELL Portfolio program – a comprehensive initiative that enables organizations to implement, scale, celebrate, and assess the proven wellness strategies found in the WELL Building Standard. Orrville’s participation provides them with a roadmap to implement changes across multiple buildings, improving the learning environment for more than 1,600 students and staff. The WELL Portfolio approach meets schools where they are and helps chart the journey toward improved health and wellbeing over time.

People spend nearly 90% of their lives indoors (Klepeis et al., 2001). It only stands to reason that we make those spaces as healthy and safe as possible – especially for the young people who will inevitably inherit the challenges we are leaving behind and lead us to a brighter future. What is most important for parents, students, and staff is having ways to measure the impact of healthy changes in the learning environment. WELL is a performance-based system that is verified through rigorous third-party, on-site testing of environmental metrics that are otherwise unseen but have profound impacts on health. We would not ask our students to write a report without sufficient evidence to support their claims, and we would not deem a building healthy or safe without measurable and verifiable data to substantiate it.

The health and safety of students has always been a top priority for educators and school administrators. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves at an inflection point for humanity and schools are one of the most important places to focus our time and attention. Now is the time to act. To help schools and communities respond to health challenges like the one we are experiencing now, we have created Strategies from the WELL Building Standard to Support in the Fight Against COVID-19 – a free resource that includes strategies built around eight key themes to guide the reopening of buildings and communities for a safer and healthier future.

Our country was founded on a fundamental belief that every citizen is entitled to a quality education. And when it comes to a quality education, we often leave buildings – their design and operation – out of the equation. But if COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it is that the spaces and the places where we live, learn, work, and play have a profound impact on our health and well-being. We must incorporate evidence-based strategies like the ones found in WELL in all schools to set our students up for success, now and in the future. Where we learn matters.

Author: Rachel Gutter is President of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), a public benefit corporation with a mission to improve human health and well-being through the built environment. Rachel came to IWBI after nearly a decade at the U.S. Green Building Council, where she served as Senior Vice President of Knowledge and was Founding Director of the Center for Green Schools. Under her direction, the Center mobilized over $275 billion in investments in LEED certified educational facilities and deployed over 750,000 volunteers in 73 countries to transform schools on every continent.

Author: Angela Spangler is a Director on the Commercial Team at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). She leads market development for the education sector and supports the global growth and adoption of the WELL Building Standard. Prior to joining IWBI, Angela worked as a professional ergonomist for a large global financial firm. In this role, she developed guidelines around workplace design, partnered with the medical team to provide disability accommodations, and spent time working closely with clients to design and implement ergonomic workplace modifications to reduce and prevent workplace injuries.

Article originally published and reprinted with permission from the Green Schools National Network, within the Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly.


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