J. Carrier
J. Carrier

This is the time of year when we usually observe the rituals of going back to school: buying classroom supplies, meeting new teachers, moving into dorms, and settling back into non-summer routines. But “back to school” has a different meaning this year. Whether your school district is opening classrooms with new precautions in place or whether you’re in for another round of virtual learning challenges, this school year is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety.

As local officials and school administrators grapple with tough decisions, AIA’s Reopening America guidelines can be an important tool to help keep students, teachers, support staff—and their families—healthy. Developed through a series of virtual design charrettes, the design strategies are backed by the latest science on COVID-19, and they draw on the expertise of architects, public health experts, engineers, and facility managers.

With multiple reports tailored for schools, offices, retail spaces, senior living communities, and other high-density buildings, the Reopening America initiative offers tools and strategies that aim to:

• Reduce the spread of pathogens in buildings

• Accommodate physical distancing practices

• Promote mental well-being

• Fulfill alternative operational and functional expectations

The strategies for schools incorporate solutions for every aspect of the school day: arrival, classes, assemblies, meals, and recreation.

The recommendations recognize that schools are the beating heart of our communities, providing so much more than education. Students, families, and communities depend on schools for creative and physical outlets and human connectivity. In so many cases, schools are a safe haven for students struggling with hunger and domestic violence.

AIA’s guidelines consider these factors and many others, providing basic building blocks that can be adjusted on a case-by-case basis to ensure the needs of individual education facilities are met. This kind of public service is the epitome of the architect’s mission to protect health, safety, and welfare.

As urgent and complex as these new challenges are, it’s vital that we continue to accelerate progress in our ongoing work toward greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in education and licensure.

The latest statistics from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) show how far we have to go. While racial and ethnic diversity among individuals completing the AXP has improved 16% over the past 10 years, NCARB notes that “growth since 2018 was primarily seen in the proportion of Asian and Hispanic/Latino candidates, which increased by 2 and 1 percentage points, respectively—with no change seen in the proportion of African American individuals in the profession.” Overall, NCARB reports that “less than one in five new architects identify as a racial or ethnic minority.”

The barriers, of course, don’t just start during the licensure process. They don’t even start in schools of architecture. They begin in the earliest days of a student’s experience—with a child’s first dreams of “when I grow up.”

Seeing is believing. For children to see themselves as future architects, they must see themselves in today’s architects. Making that connection and letting students of all backgrounds view our profession as a home for their talents and a path for their dreams is our fundamental charge.

But this isn’t a time to talk about what we’re already doing. It’s a time to ask: What more can we do? It’s a time to listen and to collaborate in new ways with our colleagues in NOMA and allies in the NAACP, National Urban League, Arquitectos, and others. As we strive to live up to our pledge to advance racial equity, this dialogue is not just a first step; it is an imperative every step of the way.

We’ve always said that today’s challenges are too complex to be solved with a narrow set of perspectives. In a year like 2020, can anyone doubt it? The more diverse and inclusive our profession, the better those solutions will be.