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September 29, 2020
Education, Future In Focus

Future in Focus

With more than six months of life-altering impact from the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and much of what lies ahead still uncertain, few areas of our daily existence remain untouched. Navigating how to safely continue to educate our kindergarteners through high-school seniors during this difficult time is a complex trigger for many concerns. While everyone agrees that they want what is best for our children, the return to school has heightened concerns about continuing to provide a consistent – yet safe – curricular and extra-curricular experience for all students.  

To gain specific insight into the Midwest region, Pepper conducted an informal survey of employees with K-12 children who attend school in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. The 168 respondents do not necessarily carry statistical significance; however, they do offer a real-life snapshot of how parents and students are reacting to different educational arrangements as of late August 2020.   



Classrooms going "live and in-person"

About 14% of American children went back to school by the first full week of August – mostly in the South and parts of the Midwest – and most of them returned in person this year despite COVID-19 concerns. In Indiana, where some students returned as early as late July, at least two districts were forced to close due to staff or student COVID-19 cases within the first two days of school. Both schools have since reopened and are also offering the option for remote learning.

Based on the Pepper employee survey, parents seemed to be relatively satisfied and comfortable with having their children return to school in person. They were asked to rate their overall experience, including things such as the policies and procedures schools have put in place, communication efforts before and after school opened and orientation processes. The scale provided was 1-to-10 with 1 being "very dissatisfied and concerned" and 10 being "very satisfied and comfortable." The results show about 40% in the middle or neutral range and 60% in the satisfied and comfortable range. No respondents placed themselves squarely in the dissatisfied range.



Safety has always been our top priority

Temperatures are checked daily on our construction sites.

Construction workers are accustomed to wearing PPE, so mandating the use of facemasks was not a major adjustment for our teams. What took a bit more time and ingenuity was figuring out how our tradespeople could perform their broad variety of tasks while social distancing. Pepper adopted the mantra that if we can't do it safely, we simply can't do it. So, we developed best practices and new processes that allowed us to move forward while keeping staff and tradespeople employed. If we experience a COVID-19 exposure on a site, we have staff ready to step in with supplemental cleaning and disinfecting efforts, giving us the confidence to reopen sites quickly, which also makes our partners feel safer.

Construction was also one of the first industries to mandate temperature checks. Pepper started this process on K-12 jobsites in the spring – and our clients were paying attention. Several asked us about the protocols that we followed and how they might be adapted to their own environments to help protect students and staff while remaining in compliance with CDC recommendations. Topics discussed included the following:

  • How to reconsider standard tasks to employ social distancing
  • Safety and security practices when entering and leaving the building
  • How to leverage larger spaces within the school to support construction activities on campus
  • Using temporary barriers to help keep groups separated and regulate movement
  • Implementing handwashing and sanitizing stations

"The pandemic has certainly heightened our safety awareness in new ways. Our multi-phase work for the Maine Township High School District in Illinois coincided with the early days of the pandemic, so we had to be both proactive and innovative with our preventative safety measures to protect our frontline field workers and our clients. At these jobsites – as well as at several other K-12 projects – two of our first steps were to provide temperature screening checkpoints and increase our cleaning operations with a focus on high-touch surfaces."  

Robert Martinelli, Pepper Illinois

Taking a breath of clean air

Precautions and best practices implemented in schools

In the Pepper employee survey, we asked parents to select the precautions and best practices that they knew were or would be implemented at their children's schools.

Potential concerns about IAQ fall into different categories based on how recently schools were built or when they were last renovated. Both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization say that poor ventilation increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, so the safest spaces are those that constantly have fresh outside air replacing stale inside air.

"School IAQ regulations in Illinois were significantly improved within the past decade. As a result, most of the schools that have been newly constructed or renovated within the last 5-10 years have the potential to adjust ventilation rates, which can help to combat COVID-19."

Jay Ripsky, Pepper Illinois



For a small room with a few people, six air changes an hour is sufficient under normal circumstances. Studies suggest that this rate should be much higher in a pandemic – closer to nine times per hour. In a school building where the rooms are larger and the number of occupants is higher, this exchange rate may need to be increased even further. Systems that are older and cannot either handle or be adjusted to meet the increased exchange demand can be supplemented by basic elements, such as putting box fans in windows to blow air out, which is not a viable long-term solution during a Midwestern winter.

Schools that are able to increase their rate of air exchange through existing systems face similar challenges.

"Cycling in fresh air from outside will, in most cases, require that air to be heated or cooled, which can result in significant utility cost increases," said Ripsky. "You also have to pay attention to changes in humidity levels related to the increased air flow, which is another essential factor to limit the airborne virus from spreading."

Jay Ripsky [For more information, please see our IAQ White Paper]  

Some schools are beginning to explore additional technology to help clean the air, including bipolar ionization.

"This method produces a high concentration of positive and negative ions that enter a space through the ventilation system. Within the air stream, ions attach to particles, where they combine, become larger and are more easily filtered from the air."

Susan Heinking, LEED Fellow, Pepper High Performance

When ions encounter pathogens, they disrupt the pathogens' surface proteins, rendering them inactive. This process mimics what naturally occurs outdoors where ions are constantly working to clean the air. It is a significant step up from a standard air purifier, which can provide some level of increased protection in rooms with poor ventilation.  

Finding the right mix without mixing things up

While students returning to school with a mix of in-person classes and remote learning online represents the smallest group in the Pepper survey (19% of respondents), it is the most preferred scenario among parents nationally (48%). Many districts are using it to rotate students so that there are less people in a building at a time. Students still can interact, which the American Academy of Pediatrics says is essential, especially for the social and emotional development of students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Our survey shows that parents in this category are less enthusiastic about the overall school experience for themselves and their families than those who are attending school in person. Those whose children had already started a blended model fell in the dissatisfied (34%) and neutral ranges (67%), while those whose children had not yet started school were a bit more optimistic, with only 11% in the dissatisfied range, 72% in the neutral range and 17% in the satisfied range.



Half the challenge is getting there

As districts spent the spring and summer preparing for the many unknowns that the new school year would bring, student safety while bussing became and remains an area of focus. According to the Pepper survey, parent's top concerns include the following:



Overall, about 35% were uncomfortable with their district's bussing policies and 24% were comfortable. The remainder were unaware or had no opinion.

"For schools, there is also an increased financial concern related to bussing. Most districts had not planned for this expense and the process of coordinating it may be overwhelming. This includes fuel costs, additional wear and tear on current buses and a need for additional vehicles, and increased staff costs." 

Bob Hart, Pepper Ohio

In many cases, schools also were not prepared to effectively manage the increased number of parents dropping-off and picking-up students each day, which caused long waits, confusion and frustration. This is an area where construction teams can help. We are accustomed to developing logistics plans that reroute traffic patterns during construction when school is in session. With 2D plans and virtual models already in place for most projects, we can provide guidance and graphically review options related to the following:

  • New traffic patterns around schools and through surrounding neighborhoods
  • Working with local municipalities to adjust the timing of traffic lights
  • On-street and temporary parking areas
  • Opportunities for increased student and pedestrian crossing points and bike lanes


Back to school means back to screens

One way to eliminate concerns about safe bussing and logistical challenges is to maintain remote learning for all students. Of course, there are trade-offs such as decreased interaction with instructors, which shifts the burden of in-person supervision to parents or caregivers, along with the ultimate responsibility for ensuring comprehension so students do not fall behind.

While remote learning raises these concerns for students, there also are concerns for parents. The Washington Post-Schar School poll reveals that as many as 50% of working parents said it would be "harder" or "impossible" to do their job if their children's schools only provide online instruction. This divide becomes a chasm in single-parent and low-income households, and for those who often have less flexible schedules or ability to work from home. The percentage with challenges also increases for those with younger children (66%) and continues to decrease significantly as children age into middle (40%) and high school (26%). Other factors such as limited internet availability, access to equipment and children at high risk for domestic abuse or hunger further complicate the situation.

In the Pepper survey, these concerns are mirrored by Midwest parents. For those whose children returned to school remotely, 31% were in the dissatisfied range, 47% were in the middle and 22% were in the satisfied range.  



Look for the silver lining

The obvious construction benefit to school buildings being closed throughout the spring, summer and fall is that it gives us additional time to work without having students and staff sharing our jobsites. In many cases, projects have been fully designed and funded with materials procured. It is important that they move forward on their anticipated schedules so that the newly constructed and renovated spaces are ready as soon as they are needed. Schedules are not extending, but they also are not shortening based on the increased access. It has taken some of the pressure off as districts make decisions and work with their contractors to resolve unexpected challenges – in some cases with more time to consider additional innovative solutions.

Prior to the pandemic, Illinois had a record number of school project referendums, a significant number of which obtained voter approval. As a result, there was very little change in the K-12 market in terms of pricing and trade partner availability as we progressed from March through the typical summertime school construction season.

"In Central Indiana, the K-12 market - like other markets we serve - had already become more competitive since COVID-19, forcing prices down slightly. This reduction has been good news for our clients who have been bidding projects. It has allowed them to either spend less or build more for their money."

Bob Eckl, Pepper Indiana

Finding new ways of working

While most of the Midwest summer work was set before districts were forced to close their buildings to students and staff, some projects were still being designed. As people became more comfortable with wearing masks and understanding which buildings were safe to enter, some chose to take virtual tours of recently completed projects. Pepper's virtual construction team often creates BIM models and employs virtual reality to help clients visualize critical spaces and inform trade partners through the construction process. In some cases, these tools were used to replace in-person tours while under quarantine.


Other projects were in the middle of the procurement process that includes obtaining bids for services as well as securing long-lead and other building materials. In some areas of the Midwest, including Illinois, obtaining and opening bids is a rigid, highly regulated process. For the first time, COVID-19 required the submission and opening of bids to be done in a virtual environment. Requirements were adjusted so that bids could be submitted electronically and opened live via online meeting platforms. This allows for open participation while keeping trade partners, school officials, contractor teams and the public safe.

Now that this precedent has been set and rules have been adjusted to allow it, the system may be permanently changed, which could result in significantly streamlined process.

What have we learned? Lesson plans for architects and contractors

How will the challenges we faced in 2020 impact students and schools in the years ahead? It is far too early to anticipate meaningful, long-term changes of any kind. But just like parents, students, administrators and teachers, architects and contractors have started to look ahead. Much depends on a COVID-19 vaccine, as well as potential complicating factors, such as the flu season. For new school construction, it will probably be five or more years before we see any meaningful, measurable impact.

Areas of more immediate change are likely to include the following:

  • plexiglass-protection
    Plexiglass is used for protection amid COVID-19.
    Division of spaces – Designers have already begun to incorporate additional space division elements in both school and office projects. While they encourage social distancing, they also support an increased sense of personal safety. For example, at a school in Illinois' District 155 where renovations and an addition were recently completed, more than $100,000 in plexiglass shields and dividers were added throughout the building.  
  • Digital Resiliency – Similar to how we prepare buildings to withstand natural disasters, we need to consider how they can continue to serve their communities when learning is restricted to digital engagement. How can students continue to "connect" with their schools even if they can't be inside, and how can schools continue to support diverse needs, such as free lunch programs?
  • Food Service – Limiting the need for interaction in areas such as food service could have both short- and long-term impacts. For example, serving pre-packaged meals would eliminate the need for contact with food service workers in school cafeterias. Over time, schools may choose to offer food choices that can be ordered and then picked up at a counter.
  • Ease of cleaning – Issues such as material choice, surface texture, connections, seams and overall form will require increased attention. More schools will replace potentially unhygienic surface finishes like carpeting and upholstery with more durable materials that will withstand regular scrubbing and sanitizing.

Schools as a community resource

Architects are exploring flexible designs for large school spaces, like gymnasiums, to be more easily converted into community spaces for the next critical event.

Looking beyond day-to-day operations, some districts and municipalities are considering how school buildings can provide additional support to communities during a pandemic or other time of crisis – especially in rural areas prevalent in the Midwest. One possibility is the conversion of high school gyms into temporary community or healthcare facilities. Architects are beginning to explore how this may impact the planning and design of these spaces to determine what changes may need to be made to support increased flexibility of the physical space as well as the mechanical and electrical systems.

As the first semester of the school year progresses, one thing is certain – COVID-19's impact on the K-12 market has implications that reach far beyond the classroom. Fair access to equal learning opportunities across platforms is essential. In addition, the daily routines that have been established around having children in classrooms and after-school care programs play a major role in allowing parents to focus on work while contributing to a recovering economy. We will need to consider lessons learned through socio-economic, public health and curricular performance filters so we can continue to apply new knowledge and create environments that support the best possible educational outcomes. 

This blog post is part of the Future In Focus series, which analyzes the decision to proceed, as well as the creativity and tools to wisely manage your project. Experts from across the company are weighing in so you can start to sort through all the unknowns and make the most informed decisions possible. We encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates.


About the Authors


Bob Eckl Senior Vice President, Indiana

With 28 years of industry experience, Bob oversees national retail accounts and provides supervision to more than $500 million in Pepper projects. Bob started with Pepper’s Chicago office in 1996 and joined Indiana in 2005. As senior vice president, he co-leads Pepper Indiana’s operations, which includes staffing and pricing strategies, as well as the preconstruction, quality and virtual construction departments. Bob holds a Bachelor of Science in Construction Administration from the University of Wisconsin. He is an ACE Mentor board member and mentor committee chairman, and he serves on the General Contractor Council of the Indiana Subcontractors Association. Bob is also a member of the International Council of Shopping Centers, where he earned the Certified Development, Design & Construction Professionals (CDP) credential.


Bob HartProject Executive, Ohio

Bob is a seasoned Project Executive responsible for leading the company's project teams to deliver the highest level of service and quality for clients in all markets, specializing in K-12 construction. Bob has completed over $650 million in K-12 projects, including serving as Project Executive for numerous district improvement programs. Throughout his tenure, Bob has developed a strong understanding and appreciation for the challenges and complexities associated with K-12 project design and construction. His extensive experience working with school districts and designers enables him to explore options for construction and focus on maximizing dollars available while realizing key design goals. 

Bob grew up in Worthington, Ohio and attended Worthington City Schools.  For the last six years, Bob has volunteered for the Olentangy Facilities Development Committee. Bob became passionate about K-12 projects when he was involved with one of the first State of Ohio Emergency Response Repair School Projects. He saw firsthand the importance of educational facilities to provide a safe environment to learn and the lasting impact it has on the local community.  


Robert MartinelliSenior Vice President, Illinois

With 23 years of industry experience – including 18 years with Pepper – Rob has developed an impressive record of successfully delivering a range of K-12 and higher education projects, as well as commercial office buildings and corporate headquarters. Working throughout the Chicagoland area, the energy and enthusiasm that Rob brings to his projects is contagious and benefits design teams, trade partners and clients alike. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Technology from Eastern Illinois University and is a LEED AP.


Jay RipskyExecutive Vice President, Illinois

As executive vice president, Jay has responsibility for Operations at our Barrington office. Most recently in his role as senior vice president, he oversaw the continued growth of our K-12 and manufacturing, distribution and warehouse markets while also playing key roles with our safety and quality teams. Jay’s career in construction began more than 25 years ago with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Southern Illinois University. Since joining Pepper Construction, Jay has developed a broad level of experience in a wide variety of markets, including healthcare, retail, commercial and institutional work. In addition, he has managed our self-perform market, expanding the reach of these services beyond Pepper Construction projects and developing the infrastructure and team that support it.