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Engineering a Safe Back to School

By Alexis Eades
Vector image of online learning and masked students

Engineering a New Normal

It’s the end of September, and the past month has been very different for everyone. Across the country, schools have not agreed whether to be online, in-person, or hybrid. Each district has chosen a different path. Public, private, K-12, university, every school is dealing with the uncertainty that has become such a large part of 2020 in the best ways they can. Will schools that are completely virtual now be in person in the spring? Will schools that are in person now have to go virtual if there is a second wave in the winter? A lot of the variance in how schools nationwide are handling this situation is probably because two things are happening: self-adjustments and monitoring, and actual rules people must follow put forth by authorities.

This is not unique to schools. Look at grocery stores, where one establishment is doing one-way aisles, another is not, even in the same area. Many are taking matters into their own hands with on-the-fly designs for grocery and convenient stores, schools, and everywhere else. As such, there is a growing need for advice from engineering experts about space design and infrastructure maintenance.

Students Lend a Hand

Students across the country are also searching for ways to contribute to the scientific community’s efforts to combat the many problems COVID-19 has caused. In the Lone Star State, many universities are working to improve ventilators and PPEs, research vaccine options, and help slow the virus. Texas A&M performed a study that supports the widely held assessment that mask wearing is the best way to reduce the virus’ spread. Requiring everyone to wear a face mask at school would reduce transmission—in a perfect world. But students don’t always have the best track-record for following dress codes to a T. Soooooo, are there ways we can make our physical spaces safer for everyone despite those who do not comply?

Enter the Engineer

The University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering did a study to find out more about how COVID-19 spreads indoors. They specifically looked at aerosols, the virus-carrying particles we send out into the air every time we speak, laugh, and cough. It turns out, classroom design can help ensure less particles end up on the surfaces. Apparently, “…the virus aerosols spread significantly less throughout the room when the teacher—who is likely doing the most talking—was placed directly under an air vent.” So, a big job engineers might soon face is figuring out how to increase the number of classroom air vents, and/or how to place them strategically.

Will this mean more demand for survey scanning? Scan to BIM and similar processes could potentially help schools better understand their existing infrastructure, and how it can be improved. Will touchless doors, flushers, sinks, and hand dryers become the standard? New schools may need to be designed with social distancing in mind, while existing spaces may need to be modified to to meet new guidelines. How will this change the standards that architects, and engineers use going forward?


Another consideration is cleaning the facilities. While hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are certainly beneficial, they are not perfect. The amount of plastic used and trash produced is skyrocketing, at levels that don’t seem sustainable long-term. Researchers are looking for alternatives.

JetBlue has announced plans to start using the Honeywell UV Cabin System, a device that cleans using UV rays, in a hope that the rays will be able to reach areas of the plane that aren’t being sprayed/wiped/sanitized. In May, the New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it planned to try disinfecting subway cars with UV light as well.

Since there are so many nooks and crannies in schools, and because the volume of trash produced by thoroughly cleaning every classroom in the country multiple times a day with more traditional methods would be astronomical, there’s thought that perhaps UV light will be part of the cleaning processes in schools. But what would the UV light transmitter look like? How would it operate? How expensive would it be? Will that be part of our protocol if we go into schools to perform scans? These are all questions that need to be explored further.

Existing Infrastructure

Some schools have been closed since March and remain completely virtual. If these schools do remain closed for another semester or year, what does that mean for the existing infrastructure?  Many engineers are concerned that buildings left unused may develop water and/or air quality problems. This could spark a stream of testing, inspections, remediation and approvals that have the potential to further delay safe reentry. Will this mean that even when it is deemed safer for kids to go back to in-person learning because of COVID-19 containment or a vaccine, other health concerns related to the buildings themselves could cause delay? Engineers may have to examine how efficiency of testing/repairing/replacing infrastructure such as water pipes can be improved.

The Good News

The COVID pandemic has caused a wide variety of problems and as much uncertainty as to how to address them. Feeling pessimistic yet? Don’t be, because the good news is that researchers of all kinds are getting creative and contributing to find answers. Our responsibility is to keep asking questions, because the more questions we ask the more solutions we will find.


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