Weitzman News

Posted December 1, 2021
  • In their design for a school in a climate like Philadelphia's, Weitzman students Allen Suwardi and and Kyunghyun Kim envision a series of interconnected classrooms surround a greenhouse.

Public Schools, COVID-19, and Addressing Education’s Aging Infrastructure

For school districts across the country, the 2021-22 academic year appears nearly “normal,” as in-person instruction has resumed in many districts and with children 5 years of age and older now eligible for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

But education remains a focal point for many as parents and administrators navigate tense and heated decisions around how to manage mask mandates and vaccine requirements. At the same time, public schools have become a battleground for political arguments on issues ranging from LGBTQ+ student rights to critical race theory, they are also facing challenges brought on by an aging educational infrastructure.

While the issues facing public education in the United States are incredibly complex, faculty and students at the Weitzman School are working to address one such challenge by helping design and build healthy and engaging outdoor educational spaces.

Dorit Aviv, an assistant professor who runs the Thermal Architecture Lab, works at the intersection of architecture, thermodynamics, and materials science to create healthy and sustainable environments. She has worked on alternative approaches to climate control that include radiant panels that can keep hot and humid spaces cool and the “Hydroculus” prototype that uses water-diffusing materials to cool the air through evaporation.

For educational buildings to be open for in-person instruction during the pandemic, it is recommended to have 100% fresh air exchange, Aviv explains, which means a massive increase in energy use when operating a mechanical ventilation system. To address this challenge through design, Aviv organized a studio last summer where students envisioned naturally ventilated classrooms that have increased airflow without using more energy. Other instructors that contributed to the studio were Jihun Kim, who consulted students on computational fluid dynamics simulations, and teaching assistant, Suryakiran Jathan Prabhakaran. 

“The idea of the studio was to reimagine how we can design schools that wouldn’t have to close down during a pandemic,” says Aviv. “The students were asked to rethink the indoor and outdoor relationship and explore a gradient where there are spaces that are more enclosed and spaces that are more open, and what that means for education.”

Students in the Bioclimatic Studio course designed educational spaces for three different climates: hot and dry, hot and humid, and temperate. The students took inspiration from case studies of schools outside the U.S. and incorporated knowledge of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics to strategize ways to make outdoor spaces comfortable for work and study.

For the hot-dry environment, students designed clusters of classrooms connected by shaded playgrounds. Building walls were used as thermal mass to keep the interiors cooler, and water ponds at the air inlets were deployed to create more comfortable areas through evaporative cooling. For the hot-humid environment, students envisioned classrooms with optimized cross-ventilation, maximum shading, and a solar chimney roof design that can carry heat away from classroom spaces. Additional cooling strategies such as radiant cooling tubes and low-energy fans were included for when wind levels were low, and the design also had structural columns that could collect rainwater.

For a climate with hot summers and cold winters, such as Philadelphia, the students came up with a series of interconnected classrooms around greenhouses. These greenhouses provide warm air to classrooms during the winter months via an opening through upper wall panels. In the summer, incoming air is cooled by being pushed through the ground and the hot air is then exhausted via solar chimneys. The greenhouses also act as urban gardens so students and community members can access green spaces in their own neighborhoods.

Aviv is now collaborating with researchers from Princeton and the University of British Columbia on the development of open-air classroom prototypes using radiant cooling panels. “If you can’t rebuild a school, you can create these outdoor structures that keep you in an environment that is suitable for teaching,” she says.

Akira Rodriguez, an assistant professor in city and regional planning who studies the politics of urban planning, says that deferred maintenance of $5 billion, an average building age of 80 years old, health hazards from asbestos, mold, and lead paint, and the closure of more than 30 schools over the last decade has significantly impacted public schools and communities in Philadelphia.

“This is not an issue that the city and the school district of Philadelphia can take care of themselves,” Rodriguez says. “And these are also not isolated big city or poor city issues: All over the country we have this aging school infrastructure and no help from the state and federal level to take care of it.”

While the pandemic brought to light certain issues around school infrastructure, and federal money was provided to update HVAC systems, many unspent dollars had to be returned because schools weren’t equipped to use the unprecedented amount of money. In addition, funding to improve school infrastructure was removed from the federal infrastructure package because of those unspent funds. “Seeing this level of awareness about air quality is actually quite useful for this movement, but without the funding or political support, without any sort of context of how school districts actually work, it’s also a missed opportunity,” says Rodriguez.

To begin engaging with local communities on projects that can help improve educational facilities in Philadelphia, Rodriguez is teaching the course Planning Public Schools as Infrastructure this fall, while working in collaboration with Our City Our Schools, a coalition of parents, educators, community members, and student organizations.

Students in Rodriguez’ class helped develop materials for an art exhibit at City Hall, including learning materials and coloring books with information about the conditions in public schools. They also created a photo collage depicting the deteriorating conditions in Philadelphia school buildings. Next, students will work with community members to help craft a vision statement for a public schools planning process while assembling data sets and frameworks to support this work.

The class was a pilot project for an ambitious new cross-disciplinary effort at Weitzman, called Studio+, that brings together students and faculty across the School’s five departments in collaboration with PennPraxis. Now that the groundwork for engagement and early visioning has been laid, three spring courses—in landscape architecture, architecture, and fine arts—will begin work to articulate the outcomes of these plans.

Read the full story via Penn Today.