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As schools assess how to return to school safely and navigate guidelines, helpful resources are being offered that address possible solutions for the three re-entry models of Full Return, Alternating Return, and the Flexible Return. 

Fielding International – an award-winning international education design firm who have always been committed to designing learning environments where students and educators can thrive – have designing three scenarios based on the three possible re-entry models to support a safe return to school. These scenarios consider the distancing recommendations by both the CDC and WHO guidelines, social and emotional development supports, and the unique needs of all students.



By Jill Ackers, FI Senior Learning Designer

Education, public health, and medical community experts have all come together to weigh in on the complexity of safety and management needed for COVID-19. We must also consider the issues of equity and access to services typically provided by our schools and address the problems of providing a socially and emotionally supportive environment for our children. In the United States, the three top return models are Full Return, Alternating Return, and the Flexible Return.

Our team of architects and educators at Fielding International has designed three scenarios based on these re-entry models. These scenarios consider the distancing recommendations by both the CDC and WHO guidelines, social and emotional development supports, and the unique needs of all students.

Staying creative with time and space can be a challenge, especially if sudden changes occur. Mapping possible scenarios is a vital tool for staying nimble and building resilience. The following scenarios are based on human-centered design to ensure all learners are safe and in a position to thrive. Let us help you design learning communities for students and teachers to thrive now and in the future.



In a Full Return model, all students are welcomed back to school facilities synchronously. If this model is selected, recommendations for social distancing measures will need to be carefully considered. Using CDC’s recommendation of six-foot distancing, we have found that only 40-45% of the students in a typical class will fit in the classroom. Other areas of the school such as a library, cafeteria, or gymnasium will need to be considered as instructional space to maintain this distancing requirement. Using WHO’s recommendation of one meter (~ three feet), could allow most—if not all—of the students in a class to fit in the classroom.

Distancing recommendations are constantly changing so it is important to check with your state, district, or school to see if a recommendation has been adopted. Regardless of distancing protocols, movement and social connections are essential for children and must be considered when designing learning environments.

In this model, movement and social connections within the learning environment is possible if space is repurposed strategically. We at Fielding International are ready to help you create your own space plan that accommodates your learning objectives and in consideration of local health recommendations.

  • Repurposing space supports meaningful learning and appropriate distancing.
  • If properly designed, student movement and social connections can be accomplished.
  • If a full return can be done safely, logistics and operations may be simpler than the other two scenarios.



The Alternating Return model is a combination of in-person learning and remote learning. In this hybrid scenario, the student population is split into two groups that alternate between attending the physical building and engaging in remote learning from home. This essentially reduces the amount of people in the building at any given time, freeing up space for social distancing. It allows for on-site learning while maintaining the CDC’s recommendation of six-foot distancing or WHO’s recommendation of one meter (~ three feet) distancing guidelines or regional mandated guidelines, which vary state to state.

Many districts and schools are offering schedule variations, including alternate schedules by day, week, or even split schedules within the same day to assure this learning model meets the needs of all student populations. Unprecedented challenges require us to imagine new learning opportunities and adjust to changing role expectations. This is an opportunity to create hybrid environments where students demonstrate ownership over the learning process, reimagine accessible and independent content delivery, and navigate collaborative groupings that promote asynchronous participation.

  • Maximizes the potential for social and emotional needs to be met both in-person and online while schools adhere to social distancing guidelines.
  • Accommodates districts and schools with facilities that need density reductions for larger populations.
  • Access to synchronous and asynchronous learning allows for new types of student-centered opportunities to emerge.



Districts and parents seeking flexibility may start the year with most students primarily at home using the Flexible Return model. The model can support full-time in-school learning prioritized for youth in high-need situations based on family work or living circumstances, support for SPED & EL, and those without access to remote learning. Schools have the option to schedule small groups of students into physical buildings for a variety of activities, including one-on-one check-ins with teachers, small group instruction, collaborative work time, and facilitated learning experiences; facilities are strategically set-up to safely accommodate these types of activities.

While the model can support full distance learning, a blended approach can be incorporated with consideration given to how time and space are used, with defined roles for teachers and students. Consider delineating roles so some teachers are focused on distance learning while others are leading the in-school activities. We at Fielding International have developed spatial patterns and layouts to incorporate in this return model to maximize flexibility, build agency, and strengthen equity – all while prioritizing safety.

  • Allows schools to quickly turn the dials of how much physical gathering is possible.
  • Deepens relationships between students, teachers, and families through the creative use of time and space.
  • Purposefully uses school facilities for active, collaborative learning with authentic equity considerations built-in.


Thank you to Fielding International for this resource – If you would like to know more from them directly please contact them: