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Schools May Be Able To Teach CRE About Opening Up In Pandemic's Aftermath

As landlords and tenants struggle to ensure the safety of office users, school leaders have an even more difficult task: trying to figure out how to reopen their facilities safely while accommodating thousands of students who were once packed into classrooms. How they solve that conundrum could hold lessons for commercial real estate and strengthen the connection between real estate and the education industry.

The former John Lothrop Motley School, 739 North Ada St., in June 2019. The property has been converted to the Motley School Apartments.

“In hard times, government is usually a source of innovation,” Chicago Public Schools Chief of Facilities Clarence Carson said last week during Bisnow’s Chicago Deep Dish: The Impact of Public Schools on CRE webinar.

Innovative thinking will be needed before students can return and schools resume playing a key role in the lives of their respective communities, he added.

“[Commercial owners] have to be responsive to customers and get them back in, but we have to be a place that truly feels safe because people live in our schools. We arrive at five in the morning, and after-school programs like basketball games may go on until 10 at night.”

School systems such as CPS also provide young people with millions of meals, and act as community centers when school is not in session, sometimes even serving as COVID-19 testing centers, Carson added.

“A lot of the good things going on in our communities radiates out from the schools.”

Like office users, school officials are toying with ideas such as lengthening their day, so students can come in at staggered times, lessening density and helping people maintain social distance, he said. And they may also need to rethink how many classrooms are needed and how they are used.

Legat Architects principal Robin Randall said her firm is working with school clients to do just that, including how to use furniture, how many desks can be removed for social distancing and even where teachers will stand in the school of the future.

“We know schools are about learning, but they are also about social interaction,” she said.

Clockwise from top left: DLJ Consulting principal Darryl Jenkins; Elara Engineering associate principal Dustin Langille; Legat Architects principal Robin Randall; Chicago Public Schools Chief of Facilities Clarence Carson

Adding tech capacity will be key, especially if schools end up using a hybrid of in-person learning and virtual teaching, Randall added. 

“We didn’t have a green room in most schools where teachers could create virtual learning.”  

DLJ Consulting principal and webinar moderator Darryl Jenkins asked panelists whether schools should bring more outside air into their buildings, and what impact that may have on the spread of mold or mildew.

“That’s a very hard question to answer,” according to Elara Engineering associate principal Dustin Langille.

The buildings in the CPS portfolio vary widely in age, he said, from new to more than a century old, so it isn’t possible to come up with one set of rules. In addition, although more outside air is most often a plus for any building, that needs to be balanced against concerns that would increase humidity, which can increase the risk of infection.

Juggling those concerns may require an individual touch, Carson said.

“I’m so glad someone already made the investment so we could have a building engineer in nearly every one of our schools,” he said.

Carson hopes nonprofits and commercial real estate owners make similar choices as they deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath.

“A lot of buildings need to have someone on-site to give input,” he said.       

These conversations are not going to end any time soon, Carson added.  

“That may go on for quite a long time, even after a vaccine. It’s going to change school districts dramatically.”