Elementary school hallway with coats on coat hooks

Transforming Educational Spaces Beyond COVID-19

Ruth Gratzke, President of Siemens Smart Infrastructure U.S.

More than $280 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds have been made available to support the reopening of our schools, colleges and universities. These funds can address a wide variety of needs in response to the pandemic, supporting everything from student assistance programs to technology and infrastructure improvements to help ensure the health and safety of students and educators.



Creating safe, healthy in-person learning environments is an enormous task for education leaders in the best of circumstances, and even more so in a global pandemic, particularly as new variants of the virus cause additional uncertainty and anxiety. But there are state-of-the-art technologies that can assist educational institutions in this endeavor and strategic partnerships with industry leaders like Siemens to help address their individual challenges. We can then recommend and implement the right building technologies and strategies to meet the latest CDC recommendations and ASHRAE® standards for ventilation and air quality, as well as help navigate the eligible use of federal funding.



We’ve learned a lot over the past 18 months about how a building’s infrastructure and technologies can help us protect our health, even serving as a front line of defense against a virus like COVID-19. It’s why conversations around the reopening of schools and campuses should be seen as an opportunity to address the current conditions of our education infrastructure.

We’ve learned a lot over the past 18 months about how a building’s infrastructure and technologies can help us protect our health, even serving as a front line of defense against a virus like COVID-19. 

When working with a school, for example, the first step is to ensure the existing infrastructure, such as the Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system and building automation system, along with filtration, are working properly. Next, we consider how new smart air technologies, from air  scrubbing and ionization to enhanced filtration, can deliver improvements rapidly and where they are most needed. Finally, we can upgrade and modernize equipment and controls to current standards, and optimize performance, from ventilation, scheduling and controls, to leveraging artificial intelligence, remote monitoring and cloud-based analytics. We can even address deferred maintenance concerns, such as aging electrical systems, to improve resiliency. 


The silver lining is that most of these improvements can be funded by the COVID-19 relief funding. By taking these steps today, we can transform our built infrastructure for education so that it’s truly “smarter,” more resilient and prepared for the future, mitigating not only this virus but also helping to prevent the spread of the next one, and the next. 


One critical component is indoor air quality (IAQ) and the importance of proper ventilation, as highlighted in the recommendations from the CDC and Department of Education. It’s clear that achieving healthier indoor air is a win-win, not only for curbing the spread of COVID-19 but also for improving learning outcomes and, most importantly, keeping students in the classroom with their teachers.


And yet, the path to better indoor air quality has been a challenging one for many educational institutions. In the past securing funding for projects might take years or need to happen in phases: According to a government report last year, about half of districts need to update or replace multiple systems like HVAC or plumbing, and an estimated one-third of schools need HVAC system updates. Which makes now an opportune time to make critical upgrades, in K-12 settings and higher education ones alike. In a recent survey of 500 parents with high school students, nearly half of the respondents ranked IAQ in their top three concerns, after academics and affordability, when it came to where their child went to college. 


Our approach at Siemens, as a long-time technology partner to schools, colleges and universities across the country, is to provide value for the long term, combining technology solutions and strategies with our broader expertise around smart, integrated buildings; industry standards; and how to fund these improvements, including how to make the best use of COVID-19 relief funding. I’ll share a few examples of what this looks like around the country. 


The first is Tallahassee Community College in Florida, where we’re upgrading and modernizing infrastructure and equipment across 25 buildings on campus. Additionally, we are deploying the latest in machine-learning technology, which works in tandem with the ventilation and controls systems to defend against virus transmission and save energy. In Defense Mode, the system optimizes indoor air health metrics based on ASHRAE® guidelines. Post-pandemic, the software can easily be switched into Green mode for greater energy efficiency. The end result will not only help keep the 25,000 students, faculty and administrators in the community safer, but also improve energy efficiency and offer greater resilience for the campus. We are also working to bring this highly effective technology into other learning environments across North America, enabling the monitoring and verification of health and safety 24/7.


Another collaboration is with the Shelby County School District in Tennessee. Building on a 30-year partnership, we were able to proactively recommend control strategies in the early days of the pandemic, using the building automation system to bring in more fresh, outside air even before the CDC made these recommendations. We also partnered with the charter school Memphis Scholars to help its two campuses reopen safely in early April with the installation of air purification technology and HVAC system improvements. Both schools have been able to sustain in-person learning, providing stability and peace of mind for students, educators and working parents, even in an area where outside air quality was poor.


Finally, in Augusta, Maine, we addressed the school district’s needs for air purification as we worked with school administrators on a comprehensive plan to address a host of HVAC improvements. While ambitious in scope, the availability of COVID-19 relief funding helps make these large-scale projects possible right away, when previously they might have been tied up by limited capital budgets or extended over years, instead of weeks. What’s more, these projects can be implemented without interrupting in-person learning. 


Most importantly, by leveraging the available COVID-19 relief funding, schools, colleges and universities can seize a transformative opportunity with benefits that will last for years to come. From smart air technology and critical systems upgrades to the latest in IoT sensors with LED lighting to track space density and increase students’ productivity, these investments will allow schools and campuses to use digitalization to achieve their needs now, while also preparing them to leap to the next “smart” innovation down the road.


With the best available technology and smart infrastructure optimizing our educational spaces, we can look toward the new school year with greater confidence and optimism for the future. Working together, we can create classrooms and campuses that offer safe, healthy and comfortable learning environments. The time to act is now – for our students and educators today and for those who will learn and teach in these spaces in the future. 

Published: August 26, 2021

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