Top 5 Pandemic Learnings for District Planning

As we reflect on education during the pandemic, what can we take away that speaks to the future and student success? In the following, we recap Wold Architects and Engineers EDspaces 2021 presentation “Top Five Pre/Present Pandemic Learnings for Equitable and Innovative District Planning” with Dr. Jeffery Ridlehoover, former Mounds View Public Schools Asst. Superintendent. This was a once-in-a-lifetime case study on a pre-covid facilities planning process that successfully navigated the pandemic, and how districts can find success to thrive in and beyond future health crises. Mounds View Public Schools holds a unique and informed perspective as its facility updates were put to the test navigating the pandemic.

Mounds View Public Schools is the 11th largest district in the state of Minnesota. Home to over 11,600 students, the district encompasses 14 schools. In 2017, the community passed a $164.8M referendum, voicing a desire for district-wide improvements. These drivers for change include a growing enrollment, facility maintenance needs, an underlying desire to create more equity and a modernization of buildings with flexible learning. Mounds View Public Schools partnered with Wold Architects and Engineers to assist in these improvements.

The COVID-19 pandemic began at the end of the design phase and in the middle of construction for some projects. which put numerous preconceived notions to the test. Although undesired, the pandemic’s silver linings involved an enhanced understanding of what learning can look like for students in flexible environments. Below are our top five pre/present pandemic learnings towards equitable and innovative district planning.

Learning #1: Provide students voice & choice.

Transforming how students and the community-at-large feel about their facilities have a tangible impact on student engagement. As planners, providing students voice & choice, or the opportunity to choose to learn the way they learn best, throughout the planning process helps promote student agency. One example of students’ voice & choice during the planning process with Mounds View was furniture selection. Student input sessions were instrumental in the furniture selection process by testing pilot furniture, answering surveys and other methods of providing feedback which ultimately lead to a new set of furniture standards for the District. Furniture selected by students also played a key role in adjustments for the pandemic.

Anthony Gilbert © Gaffer Photography At Edgewood Middle School, spaces allow students to feel good about where they are and are likely to perform better.

Learning #2: Position your district to be poised for the next pandemic

Although conversations of the pandemic may be tiresome at this point in time, it is our belief  that we should ensure school facilities are resilient enough to handle whatever comes next. Maximum flexibility is key. Because of this, districts should routinely consider how existing spaces can be leveraged to prepare for necessary adjustments. Newly furnished flexible spaces at Mounds View became invaluable during the pandemic as mandatory shifts to social distancing & hybrid learning arose. For example, at Sunnyside Elementary School, flexible spaces allowed teachers advanced opportunities to spread students out to accommodate for social distancing. By creating a more flexible environment, districts will have a head start on future global health crises or whatever comes next.

Social distancing accommodation in flexible spaces at Sunnyside Elementary School.

Learning #3: Create inclusive spaces for gathering.

Committed to its overall equity promise, one of Mounds View’s main facility drivers centered around an underlying desire to develop inclusive facilities that uplift all individuals. The solutions to this were not predetermined. However, establishing needs before the planning process was crucial to understanding overall goals and where improvements could be made. Analyzing maintenance needs, enrollment, finances, and educational priorities to better inform a community task force was essential. The nature of learning spaces was also questioned, which brought new insights to the table, including dominant themes of collaboration and cross-communication. An example of solutions tied to inclusivity includes the commons spaces at Irondale High School. These spaces help create a sense of identity and community, while creating new opportunities for students.

Troy Thies Photography At Irondale High School, common spaces helped create an enhanced sense of community, opened up circulation pinch points, and created more flex learning opportunities.

Learning #4: Emphasize your innovative program opportunities.

Today’s competitive educational environment makes it essential for school districts to promote what makes them unique. To attract students to their schools, districts must have a competitive advantage in marketing their educational opportunities. Mounds View was beginning to transition from traditional curriculum to increased student agency, project-based learning, and college and career-focused options. Because of this transition, physical spaces designed through the referendum centered around manifesting these emerging educational changes. Design choices were maximized to positively affect students with innovative opportunities. These new opportunities provide a competitive advantage amongst other districts in the area.

At Turtle Lake Elementary School, existing classrooms include increased exposure to flex areas.

Learning #5: Embrace enrollment changes as an opportunity to reevaluate facility needs & development.

Before the referendum passage, projections showed that an additional 1600 students would be attending Mounds View when the area’s housing developments are complete. Determining a plan for this growth, the school district’s priority was not to disrupt attendance boundaries. Instead, there was a strong emphasis on creating capacity where needed. Instead of new buildings, schools across the Mounds View district were renovated and added onto to accommodate this growth, creating new learning environments within current facilities to offer innovative program opportunities.   

Anthony Gilbert © Gaffer Photography” Renovated Space at Mounds View High School to accommodate for enrollment growth.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the connection of learning and our built environments to the test. Because of this, we could reimagine what education looks like for students. If you are a district, when you reflect on your time throughout the pandemic, what challenges did you encounter? What pre/post pandemic learnings could be applied to your goals moving forward? To learn more about how we can assist in the future with planning in your district, do not hesitate to reach out to our team at Wold Architects and Engineers.

Dr. Jeffery P. Ridlehoover

Dr. Jeff Ridlehoover (former assistant superintendent for Mounds View Public Schools) is the Superintendent of Schools at Sartell St. Stephen and an adjunct professor at Hamline University in Minnesota. Prior, he was principal of Mounds View High School and associate principal of Wayzata High School. Ridlehoover has his EdD in Education from Hamline University, M. Arts in Education from the University of St. Thomas, and his B.S. degree in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota.

Paul Aplikowski, AIA, LEED AP

As one of the leaders of Wold’s educational planning group, Paul brings over two decades of educational master planning and design experience to clients facility planning and projects. Understanding the goals of Wold’s clients, communities and stakeholders is his primary goal. A school is not just a building, it's a part of a unique community and should reflect that community's values and beliefs.

Tyler Ertl

Tyler is an associate at Wold Architects and Engineers. He has a broad range of experience with educational facilities and helps bring a personalized experience to each client he works with. Tyler’s collaborative communication and listening skills, perceptive design sensibility and dedicated problem-solving approach are several strengths he brings to a team throughout planning and design.