• LaBella Associates

In Conversation with Dr. Robert Dillon: Scenarios for Our Schools


With so much uncertainty surrounding the next school year, LaBella has been focused on ensuring we are ready with design solutions for a variety of different scenarios.  Like most of our clients, we're reading, discussing, and consulting with experts to ensure that we are prepared to advise those that rely on our expertise.

On the subject of education, one of the experts we rely on is Dr. Robert Dillon. Dr. Dillon has worked with our design team and clients on re-imagining the classroom of the future.  He is a sought after author and speaker, and joined us for a remote Q&A for his take on K-12 education during and after the pandemic.

LaBella: Now that the immediate transition weeks are behind us, what are the most pressing issues for districts right now?

Dr. Dillon: Keeping an eye on caring for our students and families. In times of crisis, we rush to support, but it is essential to keep checking on families and sustain support. Along with this, we need to be scenario planning. Even as a cloud of uncertainty looms, we can generate plans for a variety of future options. This will give us the best chance to avoid being in reactive mode in the fall. It will also support an expansion of ideas, as opposed to a contraction that leads to only past solutions and ideas. 

LaBella: What preparations will be required to return to school? How can architects and engineers assist districts in these preparations, in the short term?

Dr. Dillon: School districts need thought partners right now. Architects and engineers can play this role if they can truly see their support as a community service and avoid seeing things through a business development lens. Districts need to be thinking about how to optimize all of their space. This will include how to spread students throughout the building. Schools are considering if the space for their nurse needs to expand, how larger common spaces like gyms, cafeterias, and libraries will be used, and considering the maximum density of classrooms, hallways, and busses. So many items to consider if we want to maintain a healthy return to the physical classroom. 

LaBella: We have seen a quick and total adjustment to online learning. Once the physical classroom becomes accessible again, what will the new balance be? How does the use of technology impact the physical classroom?

Dr. Dillon: Teacher confidence around the role of technology is growing. In this intense period of remote learning, teachers are growing more comfortable with tools and trying new resources. We will need to recognize what is working and avoid letting it all go when the comfort of normalcy returns. Some students are thriving in this environment. How can we keep the momentum for this group going? Every grade span and subject will have a different blend, but we need to continue to use the best of technology to be efficient with our teaching. Over time, there will be more common working spaces in schools to support our blended learning reality. Students need to gather for social connection while also having a comfortable place for the online portion of their learning. 

LaBella: What will be the long term impacts to campus planning and design? 

Dr. Dillon: Over the next 18 months, we are going to see budget uncertainty that may limit medium-sized projects. Bond issues and referendums will probably continue because funding needs for both capital projects and operations are going to grow. Smaller projects that are specific to re-purposing existing spaces will be coming fast throughout the next 6-9 months. Designers should be thinking about ways spaces can be flexed for one purpose, and then returned to a previous purpose (as opposed to the addition of a wing to a building). Many feel that it may be closer to 2021 before there is any sense of normalcy around this work. 

LaBella: With budget and funding concerns top of mind, how do districts proceed with implementing changes and planned projects?

Dr. Dillon: Space needs are growing, and this crisis is actually showcasing a need for more flexible and agile spaces. More and more communities are going to see and appreciate this need very quickly, so my advice to schools is to not push plans down the road, but to get started in a phased approach that respects the fiscal situation, but still gets the momentum around this essential work moving forward. One space or a few spaces done right now will help to keep learning space design as a priority on the other side of the pandemic.

LaBella: How would a hybrid model of teaching (online and in-person) impact our schools?

Dr. Dillon: This is a model that doesn't work at a level of excellence for many of our students, and so there is an essential need to get students back with their teachers and peers in the same physical space. We can continue to grow the number of students that could excel in a hybrid model, but both teachers and learners need to practice this type of learning model. The Learner goes beyond fact and knowledge attainment, both of which are fairly easy in a hybrid model, but using a hybrid model for students to discover and construct their learning is more difficult. If we want to be in a hybrid space as part of the long-term solution, it will require that we step up the quality of the curricular design. 

LaBella: When we think about the school functions that may present the biggest social distancing challenges, arrivals, dismissals, and cafeterias all come to mind.  Alternating or staggering attendance may be a short term solution, but will certainly present challenges to working parents.  If we could reimagine those experiences, what would they look like?  Can we fundamentally change the user experience of our schools long term?  And, do we want to? 

Dr. Dillon: The key to a successful rethink of school will be expanding the paths and spaces that our students have for learning. We certainly don't know what options that the virus are going to allow in the short-term, but if we can expand our definition of what formal learning means during this time, it will keep us from placing everyone back in the same box. Some students need to be in a physical building each day. Some could thrive in a hybrid model. Virtual school would work for some students. There are many other models that have shown to work, and districts can't afford to have a single path to a diploma. We have to expand our flexibility, avoid a quest for perfection, and meet students and families where they are in crafting a solution that allows for students to obtain the basic knowledge that they need as well as cultivate a long-term passion for learning and solving problems. 

LaBella: As we come to terms with a “new normal” what do you feel is the biggest challenge for Administrators? 

Dr. Dillon: Managing expectations will be essential. We are truly in a time when administrators need to use their excellent communications and marketing skills. Parents needs to feel safe about the return to schools. Students need to know that schools will be an enjoyable place for them to return. Our community needs to see that public health is central to our thinking. Teachers need to know that we will support them as they grow comfortable in these new ways of facilitating learning. If we are returning to buildings in the fall in some normal model, this needs to be framed as a success as opposed to something less than it used to be.  Framing messaging and establishing common language now will help to grow trust and support as this phased return and new normal materialize. 

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