3 keys for higher ed safety and success post-COVID

One positive outcome of the pandemic: Institutions are placing a greater emphasis on healthier buildings
By: | March 31, 2021
The Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida (Seamus Payne)The Morsani College of Medicine at the University of South Florida (Seamus Payne)
Matthew J. Wiechart, TLC Engineering Solutions

Matthew J. Wiechart, TLC Engineering Solutions

Even before the pandemic, remote and distance learning were increasingly popular options for students and administrators. The flexibility offered by online degrees—allowing students to take a class or hear a lecture on their schedule—has contributed positively to many educational institutions’ bottom line.

The investment made to support remote learning during the pandemic can be an investment in expanding future courses while also keeping tuition costs down.

But it is important to invest wisely. Facility administrators and directors should consider investing in upgraded audio/visual systems that provide improved audio and video.

There are video camera systems available that can follow a lecturer and allow the viewer to focus in on the whiteboard, allowing a more interactive viewing and learning experience. Large lecture halls would require more robust systems than smaller individual classrooms.

The universal acceptance of digital learning for core college courses will impact higher education significantly and will be part of pedagogy moving forward. Out of a four-year college, perhaps the first one or two years will be done online or at a community college, something that will help save students money as the demand for increased infrastructure lessens.

Healthier buildings post-COVID

As higher education leaders, students, parents, and faculty learn more about how the virus spreads, it is important to understand and limit risk. Having professional engineering experts review your building’s HVAC systems and implement targeted interventions such as increased air exchanges, improved filtration, or UV light disinfection strategies can reduce risk.

However, it is important to remember that social distancing and mask-wearing remain the most effective preventative measures.

These building studies and risk mitigation strategies allow institutions to prove that they have put the appropriate measures and systems in place to reduce the risk of infection and keep occupants safe.

The end result of these improvements is a healthier building even after this event is behind us.

Looking to the future

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to future-proofing higher education facilities. Every institution is different but they share a single goal: the safe return of students, faculty and staff to support in-person learning, as interaction, collaboration and face-to-face communication are critical elements of the college experience.

One positive outcome of the pandemic is that institutions are beginning to place a greater emphasis on healthier buildings. While incorporating sustainable design elements has become the standard for new academic buildings, many institutions are considering having their new buildings meet the WELL Building Standard.

The WELL Building Standard is a performance-based green building rating system designed to provide guidelines and strategies for designing, building, and operating built environments that promote human health, well-being, and productivity of the building’s occupants.

It is not meant to replace LEED certification, as the two organizations complement each other in many ways and have many similar goals, the fundamental difference between the two is that LEED strategies focus on buildings and WELL strategies focus on people.

Statistics consistently show that students perform better in healthy buildings. Perhaps one of the most important legacies of the pandemic will be how we design and engineer the next generation of higher education facilities.

Read part I of this op-ed: How to meet the challenges of ‘returning to normal’

Matthew J. Wiechart is managing principal with TLC Engineering Solutions. He can be reached at matthew.wiechart@tlc-eng.com.