Architect | Professor | Parent

Three perspectives of COVID-19 implications on higher education

Architect | Professor | Parent

With universities across the country hard at work preparing campuses for students, Perkins Eastman reached out to one of our Higher Education Practice Area Leaders, Principal Carisima Koenig, who has a unique perspective to offer. As a leading architect, a professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and a parent sending her son off to university for the first time, Carisima is looking at higher education in the time of COVID-19 from all angles.

I have been writing and re-writing a letter to my son who will be a ‘first year’ at university this fall. Apart from the obvious reasons, this is a difficult letter to write. My concerns as a parent are complicated by my overlapping professional roles as a campus architect and college professor. As schools around the country struggle with decisions about whether and how to reopen safely, I find myself deeply invested on multiple fronts. In this letter that I hope to secretly tuck away in his dorm room dresser drawer, I list all the things I hope he has learned over his 18 young years: treat others as you would like to be treated, be kind, study hard, go to class, take chances, and always flush with your foot. But as I try to write this “perfect” missive, the media is at a fever pitch as the daily surge of COVID-19 infection rates across the United States — including the state where my son is to attend college — spike. The coronavirus curve is not flattening, or declining, it is rising rapidly.

We live in Brooklyn, NY. We spent months in “New York State on Pause” and the last nine weeks carefully moving from Phase One to Phase Four. Our son finished high school online and graduated virtually from our living room. We wear masks as a rule of state law. We physically distance and still handle our groceries with care. The disruption from this pandemic has created an atmosphere of uncertainty, apprehension, and speculation about the future.

We are torn between optimism and excitement over his educational future and wrestling with potential fall scenarios.

Recently, the spike in COVID-19 infection rates has driven more than 20 colleges and universities to switch from a hybrid of in-person and online teaching to a strictly online scenario. These changes have placed many parents in the same position as my family wondering about the future for our college-bound children. While universities are working tirelessly to navigate the pandemic and re-imagine their educational formats, the goal posts are constantly moving. Should students attend university in person? If they do, how great is the risk that they could become infected? If our children attend online, will they still be able to build the important social bonds that define the campus experience?

Architect | Professor | Parent 1

As an architect, a Principal, and an Associate Higher Education Practice Leader at Perkins Eastman, I am acutely aware of the preparations universities are undertaking, with an eye on the changing world within which they are operating. I have been working closely with colleges and universities across the country, capturing the different ways our higher education clients are responding to COVID-19. What I do know is that whether institutions are online, on-campus, or a mix of both, the importance of community continues to be the connective tissue of the student experience. Now, we must employ a variety of strategies to ensure its continuity through this period of unprecedented disruption.

In a time of “physical distancing,” it is more important than ever to nurture and build meaningful social connections.
Perkins Eastman’s Higher Education Practice is working with several scenarios for the near future of educational environments.

We applied these scenarios to reporting by The Chronicle of Higher Educationwhich is tracking 1,255 colleges and universities and their return-to-campus plans for Fall 2020.

Architect | Professor | Parent 2As I write this, 73% of those institutions are planning for a hybrid model which brings students to campus for an educational experience that is adapted for health and safety considerations. These numbers show the optimism and belief in the importance of education tied to community and the built environment. Unfortunately, these plans are in a constant state of flux due to inconsistent guidelines at state and federal levels.

Architect | Professor | Parent 3

I am also experiencing this pandemic from the perspective of an educator. I have taught graduate level architecture for more than 15 years at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. This spring I watched the Institute pivot to online learning and spend the spring and summer planning with city and state agencies. I have attended faculty town halls which address fall plans and faculty concerns as the Institute works toward an aggressive mitigation program.

The augmented-hybrid scenario aims to bring students back to campus while leveraging digital tools to strengthen social connections and enhance the learning experience.

Similar to many schools, Pratt’s students, faculty, and staff are required to sign a community pledge — a social contract — in order to enter campus. This contract is a pledge on accountability, promoting appropriate behavior and goodwill to protect one another. In addition, consultants have been hired with a deep history of industrial and environmental science to assist with scenario planning and return-to-campus protocols. The complexity is dizzying when you consider the permutations of students, faculty, staff, community members, and their intersections in relation to neighborhood, borough, city, and state guidelines. Colleges and universities must forge ahead with the understanding that risks related to COVID-19 can be minimized, but not fully eliminated.

Architect | Professor | Parent 4

As a professor I know I am going to figure out how to teach my class this fall in whatever format comes my way. As an architect, I have created scenarios that account for changing plans and upholding education values in the midst of shifting health and safety protocols. But as a parent, I admit I am still torn.

The uncertainty makes me nervous. I wish I could predict exactly how things will go for my son. Here is where I would like to borrow an idea from my school: creating social contracts that remind us that we are community members who must care for each other through not just our words or intentions, but our actions. This responsibility to society will be the parting words in this letter I still hope to finish — as a parent who also happens to be an architect and an educator. If the last 22 weeks have taught us anything, it is that social contracts matter. When we commit to them, we go forward.­­