Like many school communities across New York, we are preparing to reopen the doors of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB) in just a few weeks. Our primary concern is ensuring the health and safety of everyone in our school community.

Many in our school community are understandably anxious about what the return to school will look like, and we all want to be assured that health protocols like social distancing, temperature scanning, face masks, and hygiene practices will be implemented. One of the ways we’re implementing these practices is through a new “Front Porch”—an outdoor lobby that ensures safe entry and exit in response to the threat of COVID-19. Beyond the pandemic, we believe our Front Porch will help integrate our education buildings into the greater community.

LAB created the Front Porch concept together with Urban Projects Collaborative, SITU, WXY, and Urban Umbrella as part of a larger body of work focused on safe and equitable school reopening under our Equity by Design initiative. We developed this initiative to encourage schools to embrace principles of user-centered agile design as reopening nears. Equity by Design projects prioritize a public health approach that privileges evidence, science, technical expertise, and public health methods.

Front Porch Design

The purpose of our new Front Porch is simple: it provides a designated space and shelter for new health protocols required for school entry, including social distancing, temperature and mask checks, and hand cleaning. The Front Porch complements other changes we have made to accommodate new pandemic protocols, including staggered scheduling, which will reduce the number of people entering, exiting, or in our school buildings at any given time, and increased school entry points, which will reduce the bottlenecks during arrival and departure periods. At a live demo event, LAB unveiled the structure; staff and medical professionals rehearsed the school’s new arrival process and showcased the Front Porch’s design elements.

School arrival and departure will be a challenge this fall, and school leaders should not wait to see how this process plays out. We know the excitement that the first day of school will bring, and we can expect confusion and chaos if we don’t make changes to accommodate the new health and safety protocols. These changes require education leaders to think differently not just about protocols, processes, and schedules, but about the physical spaces of our schools. In reflecting on the Front Porch, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams pointed out: “School is about much more than education, and this fall, it is vital that families have options that make them feel safe.”

 

Front Porch Pilot Phase

In addition to adhering to safety protocols, our Front Porch was designed as a space that supports a sense of well-being and community: We used polycarbonate ceiling panels that allow natural light to filter through, incorporated natural materials such as wood planter boxes to soften an otherwise car-focused space, and painted the ground with colorful, playful graphic art that incorporates elements of the school logo.

WXY’s Principal-in-Charge Claire Weisz writes that Front Porch Framework is a: “part of a suite of solutions that would not only prioritize the health and wellness of the school’s community but also reimagine how any urban school’s vital social infrastructure can be integrated into the public realm, now and after the pandemic is gone.” Student artwork will be installed on banners secured to the shed structure, which can be periodically rotated with new art. And, of course, we have clear graphics for wayfinding and to ensure 6 feet of social distancing as students and staff wait in line for health checks. At the checking stations, we have included signs reminding people of safety measures and we have created private stations for the wellness checks.

Schools wishing to replicate the front porch should consider certain factors that ensure accessibility in terms of installation, permitting, and cost. For instance, the Front Porch solution LAB chose is built from off-the-shelf materials that can be rented by the month and are pre-approved by the Department of Buildings.

We are excited about how the Front Porch can be used as a safe, welcoming haven during a time of crisis, but we also see a use for the Front Porch even after the pandemic—as a bridge connecting our school to the larger community. We believe schools should be part of the urban ecosystem. At LAB, students have benefited from opportunities such as internships, career days, and community service projects in local organizations. After the pandemic, LAB’s Front Porch will play a new role, serving as a venue to invite the surrounding community into the school building. We imagine using the Front Porch as a place to share information about school activities, host community gatherings, and give students and community members the chance to connect in ways that bring out the best of Brooklyn.

As our cities begin to reopen, we need to remember that what is getting us through this pandemic is community, and we must create spaces that cultivate connection. The Front Porch is not just a structure that serves a practical purpose of promoting health and safety—it’s an invitation to gather and connect as a school community and to promote wellness during the pandemic and for years into the future.

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