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How to Prepare Campuses for Their Students’ Return

Author Nathalie Weiss & Bennet Dunkley

Tags Insight, News

Modern three-story commercial building with an asymmetric facade, featuring a combination of reflective glass windows and pale stone cladding. The ground level’s expansive glazing enhances the indoor-outdoor connection, set against landscaped surroundings.

In a recent HLW survey of over 1,000 current college and university students in the U.S., we discovered a key finding: 90% of respondents plan to enroll in classes this fall, but only 60% feel ready to return to campus. What, we wondered, is causing that gap and how can we as architects, designers, and strategists, support schools in addressing it?

As a society, our knowledge of, concern about, and responses to COVID-19 have developed greatly since it escalated to a pandemic in March. For many students, this timing corresponded with spring break, and they did not respond positively to the prospect of spending the remainder of their semester off campus. At that time, the concept seemed outlandish and even unnecessary.

Today’s Student Pulse

Our survey from the end of May paints a different picture. Our respondents – current undergraduate students from across the nation – were thoughtful in their replies and desired proactive steps to be taken on campus in order to transform it into a safe environment where they could return and study together this fall. These students miss each other and their shared collegiate experience and expressed an interest in working with their institutions to find compromises in order to get back to school.

To accomplish this, they had clear suggestions: regular cleaning and sanitization, COVID testing and temperature checks on campus, hybridization of distant and online learning, and mask/PPE wearing policies. Respondents also shared that they look to their institution as its own governing body whom they trust and respect. Most students feel that their schools are doing a good job of providing information in a timely manner and ask that open communications continue as solutions are developed and shared.

Turning to Architecture

It has become clear that full time remote learning is not a preferable long-term solution for the education community. So, as with many, the Higher Ed team at HLW has spent the last few months puzzling over what getting students back on campus for a safe Fall Semester in 2020 will entail.

As we’ve considered various strategies to adapt campus environments, our message is clear: don’t build. Not only is there not enough time (or in many cases funds) but also new, ground up solutions are not necessary to meet current needs. Instead, we propose that schools consider an interdisciplinary and multi-scaled approach to prepare existing spaces to support in-person learning in new ways.

We start by considering how to scale down and disperse the student body. The concept of scaling down a student body is not novel. In fact, for many schools or programs, it’s common practice. Take MIT Sloan. Their standard class, which has 404 students, is divided into groups of 70, called Oceans, which have the same core curriculum schedule. Each Ocean is divided further into a Core Team of 6-7 students who study and complete coursework together. This example highlights the pedagogical systems already in place to break down the student body.

So, how can we take advantage of this model for the socially distant classroom? By running an occupancy study, schools can determine exactly how many students they can support in current classrooms when reconfigured for socially distant learning and how many students will be displaced. With this number determined, administrations can identify additional non-instruction spaces on campus that can be transformed using low-touch furniture and technological solutions for live or recorded virtual instruction.

Turning back to student study teams, these existing groups can be dispersed – through a methodical, rather than randomized approach – and assigned to a newly identified space during class time to learn safely together. Professors who feel comfortable teaching in person can then rotate their students, who are equally comfortable learning in person, over the course of the semester. Taking it one step further, this model might be extended to the organization of student housing. These same groups could co-live and behave as families have been during the initial month of the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming “quaranteams”.

The approach above is one way that campuses can prepare interdisciplinary strategies for a safe re-opening this fall. This, coupled with new signage, the use of PPE, sanitizing solutions, distancing, temperature taking, and contact tracing, can begin to bridge the gap in readiness that students expressed in our survey.


From the classroom to the dorm room to the cafeteria, the rules of our campus environments need to be questioned – and reconsidered – in order to adapt existing spaces, ensuring that students feel secure and supported. To do this, campuses should evaluate student needs holistically, while identifying ways to support the collegiate experience. As we continue to live through this pandemic, new challenges and developments continue to unfold daily. So, the resultant solutions need to be flexible and embracing of the resources we already have. This means problem solving in unprecedented ways and honing new tools and methodologies. At HLW, we believe this mindset will yield innovative interpretations of existing spaces on campus that are ready to support today’s learning population.