Schools: The Heart of Our Communities

Re-learning K-12 Education

Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, MA, USA

School districts across the country are welcoming their K-12 students back to school, nearly six months since the pandemic forced remote “emergency learning”. These re-entry plans vary in approach, ranging from hybrid models — teaching students through both in-person and online instruction — to continued distance learning.

Like every discipline in design, from healthcare to workplace, from large-scale to education, COVID-19 has disrupted the way we think about learning environments.

Its overwhelming impact has underscored the many and varied roles a school occupies within a community: education, child care, healthcare, food, emergency shelter, among other vital services. These services embed schools into the communities they serve. As central hubs, where future minds are molded, fed, and cared for, schools have become the heart of our communities.

Throughout this pandemic, remote learning has robbed our children of essential services provided by schools. Some have been left without food and access to technology. Many educators have been forced to swiftly adapt to teaching entirely online. As part of our efforts to understand the effects of remote learning on education, the Design Strategy Team at Perkins Eastman surveyed our employees and their children in 13 offices across North America and two of our offices overseas to understand their perceptions of “emergency learning”. Recognizing that our staff is only a small subset of a much larger and more diverse K-12 population, we bolstered our survey with leading industry research and our ongoing roundtable series with educators as part of a consortium with Drexel University’s School of Education. These research efforts culminated in our Insights Report: Re-learning K-12 Education Part I.

Three important themes emerged from our research that highlight new considerations for designing educational spaces going forward: learning, socialization, and resources/services.

Understanding schools through this larger lens, taking into account all the services schools provide, enables our designs to better advocate for policies and decisions that have implications on the ultimate success of students, and the future of our communities.

Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, MA, USA


History shows COVID-19 is not the first event to cause schools to embrace comprehensive new learning environments. In the 1920s, the American school system was redesigned to provide many of the services we take for granted today. These expanded student services and modified curricula enabled schools to better address the teaching of the “whole” child. Interestingly, part of this redesign was in direct response to public health concerns like COVID-19, mainly influenza and tuberculosis. Nurses, for example, became a staple position in schools to monitor childrens’ wellbeing and reduce tuberculosis infections.

In our survey, parents highlighted the necessity of specific learning environments only offered in a school setting: the library, specialized science labs, maker spaces, and physical education spaces. But many students and parents also said they wanted aspects of remote learning included in future education initiatives.

These desires show learning models are shifting toward blended learning environments; providing variety and flexibility — for both physical and virtual school spaces — are worthwhile considerations going forward.

In fact, research is already indicating that some students enjoy, and benefit from, the flexibility of remote learning and blended, asynchronous and synchronous learning environments. Asynchronous learning can be an effective strategy for personalized/self-paced education. As students grow older and desire more autonomy, providing choice within schooling allows them to work at their own pace and expands their access to resources and materials. Meanwhile, students who benefit from more collaborative and structured learning can thrive in a synchronous learning environment where classes are defined by subjects and schedules within a group setting. In addition, as many school budgets are being challenged by the economic crisis, advancements in blended learning with increasing access to technology may enable teachers to target achievement gaps.

By leveraging technology to better personalize instruction for individuals and small groups, children receive more targeted attention that can help them achieve at the level of their peers.

Our survey reflected this research, where the digitally-enhanced environment may provide students with additional and new resources on a schedule that best suits their needs.



Socialization is a fundamental part of the learning process, how younger students learn to interact with each other and the world. Stay-at-home orders and emergency learning have negatively affected many students and their socialization progress. Our survey revealed a lack of in-person extracurricular activities and socialization at school has overwhelmingly affected students.

In the immediate term, fostering socialization, while reducing the potential of coronavirus infections, requires schools to think creatively. Principal and leader of Perkins Eastman’s K-12 practice area, Sean O’Donnell, believes creative learning environments are key going forward.

“As we continue into the fall, schools need to enhance remote learning to better engage students. Research is showing that schools can enhance student experience by expanding synchronous learning opportunities, enabling greater student and teacher engagement while students are off-campus. These include class sessions and smaller breakout discussions to provide some of the social interaction that inspire students to learn.”

Virtual interactions need to be paired with physical “third places”. Leveraging currently underutilized physical settings on campus, for example, gyms, can allow students to socialize (and physical distance) responsibly, while accessing support services such as tutoring and meals. Creating “third places”, where children can get out of the house and safely engage socially, is now even more of an imperative.

These needs can be met beyond the boundaries of the campus into the community at large. Sean continues, “schools can tap into resources in the community by partnering with museums, parks, and higher education institutions to offer tutoring, interactive lessons, and support services both virtually and outdoors.”

Resources and Services

As confirmed in our research, and noted in many of our previous posts, COVID-19 disproportionately affects low-income people. This is especially true when considering the non-educational services that provide access to a safe and healthy environment for every child.

Access to technology was a problem for low-income communities prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, where 17% of all teenagers struggled to complete their homework due to a lack of access to a computer or Internet connection; for students of color, this number was significantly higher. One in four Black students lack these resources.

In response, districts are rapidly accelerating the provision of 1:1 technology and Internet access. After the COVID-19 crisis, how will this expanded access to technology change our schools?

Furthermore, access to food provided by schools is one of the greatest drawbacks of remote learning. Ninety-five-percent of schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, providing meals to more than 30 million students each day.

“By the end of April 2020, more than one in five households in the U.S. and two in five households with children 12 and under were food insecure.” -The Brookings Institution

School districts have mounted tremendous efforts to continue to provide healthy meals. Their commitment to provide this essential service demonstrates the need to enhance the planning and design of our schools to address their multifaceted roles in a community. For example, mirroring our schools’ role in providing meals for food-insecure students, how can access to mental health services be similarly addressed? Can schools fill the gap in providing access to counselors and mental health initiatives, especially during these challenging times? How can we, as architects and designers, help schools rise to these future challenges?


Holistic Wellness in Schools

As we continue to support our schools and communities, our ideas about the future of school design continue to evolve with a focus on Holistic Wellness. This emphasis creates a synergistic approach that will lessen environmental degradation, engage and foster life-long personal growth, promote community resiliency, and enhance health and wellness for every individual, family, and member of the community.


Thinking of schools as the heart of the community is understanding the school as an essential organ that provides services necessary to keep the whole body moving — to keep the whole community thriving. It is a renewed focus on the future of our children — and the world.