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Understanding the “Reopening New York Higher Education Guidelines”

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This past weekend New York State released the highly anticipated Reopening New York Higher Education Guidelines, including a set of mandates and recommended best practices for educational institutions. With many schools gearing up to reopen in August, we sat down with Bergmann’s Education Practice Leader, James Hickey, AIA, to get his thoughts on the guidelines and how institutions can successfully create safer environments in time to welcome back students and faculty.

Bergmann: What are your initial reactions to the guidelines? Is there anything that surprised you?

Jim: For the most part the guidelines are what we expected. They’re general in nature and focused on maintaining six-feet social distancing in educational and public spaces, hygiene and PPE requirements and screening/testing/tracking procedures. With the combination of “mandatory” steps and “recommended best practices”, each campus is given a certain amount of latitude to determine the best way to implement these in their environment.

Bergmann: What are the top details that stood out to you?

Jim: A few things stood out to me. First is the heavy reliance on face coverings. Since the start of the pandemic, face coverings have been a hot topic. While New York State is taking a clear stance on the need to wear them, this continues to be a divisive topic with a percentage of the population deciding not to follow the recommended procedures. It will be interesting to see how colleges will enforce face coverings on campus.

Second, colleges are recommended to move to a hybrid approach with a mixture of in-class and on-line participation; staggering schedules and having small groups for in-person instruction. This requires careful consideration for curriculum and course planning and could require revisions to existing spaces to accommodate necessary technology and on-site logistical changes. 

Lastly, the guidelines don’t provide specific details for residence halls or living areas, a topic that we know to be top-of-mind for institutions and parents of students. Colleges will need to get creative with how they position student living arrangements and focus heavily on an effective and streamlined solution for contact tracing, such as a mobile app.

Bergmann: Are there any aspects of the mandatory requirements that may be a challenge for higher education institutions?

I’ll mention face coverings again here, along with social distancing. Enforcement will be challenging, especially on wide-spread campuses. We’re all being asked to adopt new habits and it takes repetition and reminders, something that will require impactful wayfinding touchpoints and creative solutions for social policing across campuses.

Also, the mandatory steps of isolating an individual that becomes exposed or infected will be a challenge. Institutions need to clearly outline the protocol they will follow for isolation and make sure faculty and staff are properly educated on the right protocols to mitigate any spread. Campuses are social environments by design and real estate is at a premium in many instances. Identifying a designated quarantine location and facilitating delivery of medications, foods, etc., could pose a logistical challenge, especially when combined with mandatory screening practices and tracing procedures.

Lastly, reducing the population will be costly to colleges since that is a significant revenue generator.  Staged re-opening, reducing in-person class sizes or modifying residential rooms to single occupancy will greatly reduce revenue.

Bergmann: Is there anything the guidelines didn’t include that you feel is important?

Jim: I was surprised that the State did not include any points about modification of building mechanical systems to improve airflow and quality. With this being an airborne virus, the importance of HVAC system design and performance to mitigate spread is a topic I’ve spoken at length about with our laboratory planners and mechanical engineers.

For many of our clients, we’re stressing the importance of air quality and circulation as a key part of reentry planning, from increasing outdoor air ventilation to optimizing humidity levels and considering use of HEPA-grade filtration and UV-C solutions. Given the number of buildings on college campuses, especially residential dorms, this should be a priority.

Bergmann: You and your team have been meeting with institution leaders and know the challenges they’re facing. What do you recommend they do to get started with these guidelines?

Jim: Institutions need to focus on campus modifications and process development that work now and into the future. Unfortunately, I don’t see this pandemic ending in the next academic semester, and it certainly isn’t the last time we’ll experience a disruptive event.

We also need to get creative and draw on other industries for support. For instance, how can we connect higher education institutions with hospitality groups for additional residential spaces? This would help support the communities around campuses that will be affected if colleges are not returning at full strength. This could also help support hotels that are hit by a reduction in traveling guests.

Everything here requires a great amount of cross-campus collaboration and logistics. Where possible, institutions should leverage partners who can assist with details. Our team has put together a health assessment specific for higher education campuses to help identify exactly where modifications are needed and create a plan for doing so effectively and quickly. Solutions like that will be key to responding to these guidelines in a timely fashion for August reopening.

About James Hickey, AIA

Jim has over 25 years of architectural and engineering design experience and for the last decade has concentrated on education with a long history of successful projects. In his role as Bergmann’s Education Practice Leader, Jim is focused on building long-term relationships with our clients while working collaboratively with the team and end users to design creative learning environments. He is involved with all aspects of the project from Pre-Referendum services through project close out, working directly with Project Managers and design teams.