Portland Public Schools CTO Don Wolff in a science classroom at the new Kellogg Middle School

Jun 22 2021

Reimagining Post-Pandemic Classrooms for Today’s Learners

School districts are designing modern learning environments with new technology and furniture to better support teaching and learning.

There’s no denying that the pandemic upended education this past year. Like many school districts across the nation, Portland Public Schools pivoted to online and hybrid instruction.

“Our teaching staff rose to the challenge and have done a beautiful job making instruction engaging for students in a remote environment,” CTO Don Wolff says of the Oregon district.

While it’s unlikely that any school district in 2020 would claim to have been prepared for a pandemic, Portland’s administrators were already planning for post-pandemic learning without even realizing it.

Last year, as part of a three-decades-long effort to modernize its 81 schools, the district continued existing projects to renovate or rebuild four schools. One of those projects includes construction of the new Lincoln High School, which will feature state-of-the-art classrooms with flexible furniture, STEM labs, a makerspace for project-based learning and an outdoor plaza for student activities.

Voters approved a $1.2 billon bond in November 2020 to upgrade more school buildings, including $128 million for new technology. Now, the district’s IT team is preparing to upgrade every classroom with Wi-Fi and new audiovisual equipment.

For some school districts, these updates are long overdue. According to a June 2020 report to congress by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “school buildings in over half of U.S. districts are in grave disrepair, needing major updates in everything.”

So, while many physical facilities needed upgrades long before 2020, COVID-19 has accelerated some districts’ efforts. Their projects run the gamut from revamping existing classrooms to building entirely new campuses that better meet the needs of today’s tech-savvy students.

These modern learning spaces bring together flexible furniture, mobile devices, robust Wi-Fi and large TV displays or projectors to optimize learning. In “Clever Classrooms,” a 2015 study on classroom design in the U.K. by the University of Salford, researchers found that flexible classrooms encourage collaboration and creativity; enable new pedagogies, such as blended, personalized or project-based learning; and improve student engagement.

Upgrades Arrive for Classroom Tech and IT Infrastructure

Portland’s initial projects focused on renovating or rebuilding eight of its oldest schools to improve health and safety across the district. However, the district will also upgrade its aging IT infrastructure and equip classrooms throughout the district with new technology, says Wolff.

Wolff and his staff will deploy the technology in every classroom in three to five years. “We will combine school infrastructure upgrades with classroom modernization, so we only have to touch each school once,” he says.

Today, most of Portland’s classrooms have bare-bones technology. They have a cart with a projector and document camera tethered to an antiquated computer. About half the schools have Wi-Fi inside classrooms, but most of the access points are old. The other half of the schools only have access points in the hallways.

To remedy that, the district will install a new Wi-Fi access point in every classroom, along with a new mounted projector and screen, a Chromebox computer and an Airtame 2 screen-sharing device for teachers to wirelessly share videos and websites, Wolff says. Each room will also include a voice amplification system with a teacher microphone.

LEARN MORE: Explore free CDW resources for designing and building the future of K–12 education.

This fall, the IT staff will also roll out a one-to-one initiative and begin issuing CTL Chromebooks to students in grades three through 12.

Wolff says experience with remote instruction during COVID-19 “changed our entire instructional model. Now, teachers can take what they’ve learned in the past year, and with new classroom tools, create more engagement and authentic learning in the classroom.”

Flexible Space Is Key to the Future of Learning

The need to manage space for social distancing will probably remain long after the pandemic. Some new schools will make this easier to achieve with open learning spaces and flexible furniture.

“With the furniture, it’s definitely about mobility and flexibility,” says Mike Peters, CDW•G’s senior manager of education strategy and transformation. “Teachers can easily move desks and chairs with wheels, so day to day, they can adapt for a collaborative project or a lecture-style environment.”

In Portland, when the new Lincoln High School campus opens in fall 2022, classrooms will include desks with casters so teachers and students can easily reconfigure rooms for different activities. Outside the classrooms, each of the six floors will feature two open collaborative learning spaces and include digital video displays and different furniture.

Some 1,800 miles away in Texas, Superintendent Michael Kuhrt of the Wichita Falls Independent School District also has an eye on flexibility with two new schools set to open in 2024.

“Traditional schools don’t serve the needs of a 21st century learner,” Kuhrt says. “We want to give students a flexible schedule, flexible spaces and flexible learning modes.”

$276 million

The cost of two new state-of-the-art high schools that will feature collaborative learning spaces and flexible furniture at Wichita Falls ISD

Source: Wichita Falls Independent School District

When the two new high schools open, students will have the option to take a mix of in-person, online or hybrid courses. Each campus will feature a football field–sized common area with flexible furniture where students can do online coursework.

The district will extend the school day into the evening hours to give students flexibility with their schedules. If they work at night, they can sleep in and start school at 11 a.m.

Educators Step Up to Try Different Designs

In California, despite the pandemic, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District has managed to modernize its classrooms with new technology and flexible furniture.

Sonoma was updating classroom technology before the coronavirus outbreak, but this past year, the 3,500-student district completed the rollout across its nine schools, says Associate Superintendent Bruce Abbott.

The district standardized on wireless mobile technology that consists of laptops, tablets and tablet holders that serve as a document camera; a 75-inch Samsung or Vizio TV; a Peerless TV cart; and an interactive display device for video streaming.

The district also installed a Logitech webcam, microphones, voice amplification devices and a 24-inch monitor to enable hybrid instruction, with half the students in class and the other half joining via videoconferencing from their Chromebooks, Abbott says.

DIVE DEEPER: Logitech C270 HD webcam provides flexibility, durability and high-quality output.

Sonoma also finalized plans for new classroom furniture and will install it in every high school classroom this summer.

The district initially launched a pilot in 2019 with 25 teachers testing the furniture for a year. Options include curvy or rectangular tables with casters that can be pushed together for collaboration. Seating includes hardback chairs, soft ottomans and wiggly stools.

The new furniture and classroom technology will transform learning when students return this fall, says Creekside High School Principal Liz Liscum, who managed the furniture project.

“The pandemic forced us educators to step out of our comfort zone and try new things,” she says. “When we come back in August, I’m hopeful that the same process is going to happen with our furniture, and that we push ourselves to try different things.”

Classroom Designs Allow for Student Choice

“Our underlying theme is student choice,” Kuhrt says. “When students reach high school, we want them to have choices in how, where and when they receive instruction.”

As for designs, some classrooms will have movable walls that open into a central collaborative learning space. Other classrooms, Kuhrt says, will have a movable wall between them, so two smaller rooms can transform into one large classroom.

Michael Kuhrt
Traditional schools don’t serve the needs of a 21st century learner.”

Michael Kuhrt Superintendent, Wichita Falls ISD

Wichita Falls ISD has already gone one-to-one with Chromebooks and will equip classrooms with 85-inch interactive displays, Wi-Fi and charging stations, so students can plug in and connect anywhere. The displays will be mounted on walls or available on carts. Each campus will have furniture of all shapes and sizes, including stools and soft seating.

While multiple studies have shown the value of these upgrades, will teachers and students be ready for the changes? Some educators respond with a resounding yes. They note that since the pandemic forced them to step out of their comfort zones, they are well positioned to embrace the post-pandemic classroom and try new things going forward.

Check out how the Rochester City School District created a flexible and collaborative learning environment at edtechmag.com/k12/FutureLearning.

Jay Fram