Trends in Education: The K-12 market is active as schools adapt to serve students post-pandemic - May 2021

By Jessica Chevalier

The K-12 education market has been a bright spot in the commercial portfolio amid the pandemic. While there was a pause in activity at the onset of the quarantine as schools scrambled to get their remote learning systems established, most flooring manufacturers with whom we spoke report that the hiatus was brief and, in fact, business was even more brisk than anticipated last spring, as districts scooted their summer projects earlier with their halls and classrooms suddenly and unexpectedly empty.

The nature of the pandemic as a viral health event impacted the K-12 environment in ways both obvious and less so. Portions of the capital budget were diverted for necessities such as plexiglass, hand sanitizer stations and the like, and that meant less money funneled to overall improvements, such as flooring. However, the new focus on hygiene, cleanability and health means that schools with the capability of doing so are updating their interiors to create environments that feel cleaner, fresher and, therefore, safer for students, teachers, parents and the community.

Add almost $200 billion of emergency relief funds earmarked to “address the impact of Novel Coronavirus Disease in K-12 learning environments,” and you have a market poised for promise, should the many challenges and tangles of tape facing it unravel cooperatively.

Throughout the pandemic, the government supported institutions of public education through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). Each of the three stimulus packages has included ESSER funds (ESSER I, $13.2 billion; ESSER II, $54.3 billion; ESSER III, $122.7 billion). Under the ESSER Fund, state educational agencies award subgrants to local educational agencies to address the impact that Covid-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools across the nation, says the Department of Education Office of Elementary & Secondary Education.

According to a New York Times article from March 2021, “[T]he relief package focuses on getting students back into classrooms and making up for learning loss. Districts have until late 2024 to spend the money, which they should receive within a few months. Experts said the long timeline is an acknowledgment of how much investment students may need to recover from this past academic year.”

What’s not crystal clear is to which projects ESSER funds can be applied. Obviously, in a viral event like Covid, something like a new HVAC system is a clear investment in creating an environment that’s safer for learning, but what about flooring?

Jonathan Stanley, national vice president of education sales for Tarkett, hears this question from districts frequently and believes that there are two ways in which ESSER funding may apply to flooring: if the flooring elevates or promotes health within the physical space and if flooring creates a better social-emotional atmosphere for learning. Each of these could create a good amount of opportunity.

In more usual times, the bulk of K-12 funding comes from bonds, which are voted on by the community the school serves. The experts we interviewed had the sense that, amid the pandemic, fewer bonds were on local ballots. Says Denis Darragh, general manager North America/Asia for Forbo, “There were not a lot of bonds on the ballot in November, so the rate of bonds passing was not as high.”

Mohawk’s David Dembowitz, senior vice president of commercial sales for North America, notes that bonds that were rejected last year will have to go back out for another vote. And while there is a significant lag between a bond and breaking ground on a new construction project, there will be a lot of renovation work to delineate space and upgrade facilities, so that will be a driver. That being said, as flooring is installed at the end of the construction process and timelines for education construction are long between bond and build, a slowdown in activity could be a few years delayed.

Kurt Paulson, divisional vice president with Shaw Contract, notes that, looking ahead, much remains up in the air regarding K-12 education budgets. “It’s too early to tell what will happen with voting for bonds,” he says. “And, in addition, no one knows what the impact of the stimulus will be and what length of time will be dictated for remodels.” He notes that, at this point, it’s also hard to know what is in district coffers.

“K-12 might have been one of the least impacted segments and among the first to show signs of recovery,” says Ben Reams, director of education and hospitality at Interface. He notes that activity-wise there is a great deal of variation from region to region, driven by demographics and funding. Largely, education investment follows population. Where populations are increasing, schools are being renovated and built; where it declines, schools are more likely to languish. This means that activity is highly regionalized, uneven not only from one state to the next but even from one district to the next.

However, Kieran Corcoran, Patcraft’s director of marketing for performance markets, notes, “With many schools planning to reopen in the fall of 2021, we expect the summer business to be robust. The K-12 education sector seems to be stronger this year compared to last year. Many communities’ tax revenues were not impacted as much as expected, property values held in many communities, and the latest round of the federal stimulus package will benefit schools.”

All that said, one additional bump in the road is the shortage of raw materials plaguing the construction industry right now, and, as project costs balloon, flooring, which is one of the last finishes to go in, is at risk of being downgraded if the budget is under pressure.

Interviewees report that both renovation and new construction are active segments right now, noting that the rate of new construction is tied very closely to population growth.

“Across the country, almost half of all K-12 public schools are more than 50 years old,” reports Julie Eno, director, commercial marketing at Armstrong Flooring. “Many of these schools will require major improvement projects now or in the near future.”

Another change impacting flooring manufacturers serving the segment is that the once-established timelines of K-12 renovation have shifted to a degree. Says Paulson, “In some geographies, school is not quite a year-round event, but remodeling might be. It’s not just summer and winter break anymore. We’re seeing lengthened summer and winter schedules.”

To some extent, these changing schedules may dictate what products are specified. Gerflor, for instance, offers Attraction interlocking tile flooring that, using a spray adhesive, can be applied over existing ceramic or VCT in an evening and utilized the next day. “Schools aren’t waiting until breaks to renovate,” Gerflor’s Jeff Krejsa notes.

As the pandemic necessitated that institutions build safe learning environments, “schools had budgets in place but had to divert spending from capital improvement to health and safety,” Dembowitz reports, noting that the facilities budget is one of many from which monies were pulled for extra expenditures such as fogging schools, manpower to clean more thoroughly, and protocols from the CDC that drove extended costs. “If you look at state tax budgets, for the most part, the revenue is pretty similar from 2019 to 2020. It’s just where the money was spent that changed,” says Dembowitz.

Facility managers were faced with making do with what they had and finding solutions. “The facility manager has to protect the interest of the school by making good decisions on all aspects, so they really have to manage each dollar well,” says Dembowitz. “One issue they have to deal with is the loss of manpower. A maintenance supervisor who may have supervised 10,000 square feet before may now manage 25,000 square feet. And that changes the lifecycle cost analysis when deciding on products. Facility managers are looking for low-maintenance flooring because they don’t have the manpower or equipment budget to maintain their flooring. Some will consider upgraded products upfront, understanding that they will cost less to maintain over time.”

This understanding is often bred of long-standing relationships. “We just went through a large, new school construction,” says Darragh. “Because the general contractor was under pressure, he wanted to go with VCT. But because we had worked with the facilities team at a school directly, they said, ‘No, VCT will cost us ten times more to maintain over the course of its life.’”

Elizabeth Bonner, director, design segment for healthcare, senior living, education government and resilient at Mohawk Group, adds, “Facility managers always want to be sure that a product will do what they have sold to their bosses that it will do. Getting facility directors to change a spec from something that they are familiar with isn’t easy. No one wants to take a risk.”

“It is important to note that maintenance is a major issue,” says Whitney Welch, vice president, commercial sales for Daltile. “The cleaning crews have a lot of area to maintain so they want materials that are the easiest to maintain over time. This also impacts the colors of tiles specified, especially on the floor. We still see a majority of floors as neutral tones with minimalistic movement.”

“Facility managers are looking for products that can handle a myriad of activities, are cost effective, and easy to clean and maintain,” summarizes Kevin Cardone, director of sales–New England for Ecore.

“We had some requests for permanent distancing on floors,” says Bonner. “Some want hallways that are split down the center with different colors on each side to indicate flow of traffic and deter students from bumping into each other.”

Depression has increased among the U.S. population in the pandemic, as individuals were forced to social distance from friends and loved ones, and, unfortunately, this has impacted the young, as well. As such, Bonner reports that color-always popular in K-12 education-is being used strategically to offset those bleak sentiments and add a bit of cheer to the learning environment.

“Just like the work environment has been forever changed, I believe that schools will be forever changed with a continued focus on flexibility of space to be prepared for another pandemic or changing demographics,” says Jeff Krejsa, vice president of marketing and strategy for Gerflor. “For instance, people who lived in cities have started moving to the suburbs. We think of it in terms of indoor versus outdoor, as well. In certain regions, where the climate allows, students will be outside more.”

The pandemic also increased awareness of criteria not formerly considered as seriously in K-12: ventilation, cleanability, sanitation needs. “Right now,” says Paulson, “the book is being completely rewritten” with regard to what designers and facility managers take into consideration when specifying flooring. Furthermore, he believes that we may not yet know the extent of considerations to come.

One thing the pandemic made clear is that classrooms may function successfully with different layouts or less formality, says Brandon Kersey, director of business development for Engineered Floors Commercial.

The same is true for space, both indoor and outdoor, across the campus. “Institutions have focused on more effectively developing outdoor areas that were either underutilized or typically considered as weather prohibitive for consistent outdoor use,” says Cardone. He also notes that physical education and weight rooms are gaining more square footage with less equipment and more open, adaptable space for programming.

Acoustics play an important role in education environments, especially those packed with children, and for that reason, soft surface flooring remains an essential component. “Amid the wave of hard surface material specified in schools due to their cleanability and maintenance, facilities may not have taken the issue of acoustics fully into consideration,” says Paulson, who believes that, moving forward, schools will use hard and soft surface flooring products in tandem to achieve environments with the least acoustic disruption possible.

New is clean, and clean is safe: Shaw’s Paulson says this perception is driving K-12 renovation today. “Everyone is trying to define a safe environment,” he says. And while, at this point, we know that the coronavirus isn’t transmitted via surfaces such as flooring, the drive to freshen spaces to communicate cleanliness to students, parents, school staff and the community at large may trickle down into flooring specifications, because whether or not it’s actually the case, newer finishes tend to be interpreted as more antiseptic finishes.

In the near future, the U.S. Department of Education will release its Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse. “The Clearinghouse will be a place to highlight lessons from the field in support of students, teachers, faculty and staff, as schools and campuses continue to reopen following closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to the department. “The Clearinghouse will include a collection of lessons learned and best practices submitted by teachers, faculty, staff, schools, districts, institutions of higher education, early childhood education providers, other places of educational instruction, and States describing approaches to operating during the Covid-19 pandemic that the submitters believe to have worked well in their contexts.”

One of the three main topics in the Clearinghouse will be safe and healthy environments, defined as “school and campus approaches to implementing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended mitigation strategies and preparing for and sustaining in-person operations safely.” It is not yet known whether this will address issues around flooring specifically.

In large part, getting students back in classrooms is as based on perception as science. Building a sense of confidence and security in parents and children is a highly important element in reopening schools. And, to that end, the WELL Building Standard enables schools to certify that their spaces are safe.

“It is a scientific assessment,” says Tarkett’s Stanley. “What’s interesting is that most schools don’t know about it.” The standard considers seven concepts: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind, and, according to Stanley, certification is highly affordable, at a couple hundred dollars per building. Stanley reports that the workload to apply for certification is similar to completing a request for proposal. He adds, “WELL is allowing school districts to tell the community that it’s safe to come back.”

Considering Covid’s nature as an illness that impacts the respiratory system, indoor air quality is getting more attention than ever before. Materials such as flooring play a role in that effort and, moving forward, those that can certify their materials as low or no VOC and the like may see a boost.

For the foreseeable future, adaptability will be highly prized by K-12 education environments as they seek to create learning spaces that align with current safety standards. Social distancing standards necessitate that, for a time, rather than move around the classroom at will, students must operate within their personal spaces with their own personal materials. As these provisions loosen or become unnecessary, classrooms will again evolve, and the flooring in place will be expected to withstand the movement of desks and chairs and supporting various space configurations and wayfinding.

“From a design standpoint, the key is being flexible and agile,” says Reams. “We are seeing more multi-use environments: stairs as seating; walls as writing surfaces. People are thinking outside the box in conditions that must change.”

Kersey adds, “We are seeing a desire to have more continuity in transitioning from areas to other areas within a school. This may entail utilizing multiple flooring types that coordinate or multiple styles of a given flooring type to make transitions more fluid.”

With the goal of building community, K-12 education environments have long looked for ways to brand their facilities in permanent finishes. But these customizations must also be affordable.

“Our responsibility,” says Reams, “is to make it simple and cost-effective. There are a lot of things that can be done to customize a space without adding cost.” Customization in schools often means installing running-line products in custom ways rather than customizing the products themselves. In part, this is because schools prioritize products that will still be available in a decade so that replacement doesn’t require a full design overhaul.

“Occasionally, institutions will desire a logo or symbol related to the school utilized as a feature at the entrance,” says Welch. “Elementary schools love to get students involved by purchasing bisque tile and having the students personalize a tile that they will then use as a feature wall.”

On the middle and high school side, schools seek to brand their schools in less juvenile ways, often designing them to look more like higher education facilities.

And many schools are moving away from the standard institutional aesthetic. “Large-format tile and wood-look porcelains are being considered for K-12 more than before,” says Welch. “We are seeing a lot of interest in moving away from the standard 2’x2’ tiles to a more unique pattern such as herringbone or basketweave and education designers are now wanting numerous sizes in floor tile to mix with the regular 12”x24”.”

Corcoran notes, “The pandemic accelerated changes we were already seeing in many school designs,” noting that today, K-12 institutions seek to design “learning environments that create connections to nature, celebrate culture and community, and inspire critical thinking, and ultimately shape the student experience and create a sense of pride and belonging.”

She continues, “Evidence-based design is also an important practice to consider within learning environments-recognizing the connection between space and experience and how classroom design has a profound impact on student engagement and performance. As we move forward, we expect the focus on JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) initiatives to continue to expand, and we will see these initiatives also connected and supported through design.”

Armstrong’s Eno summarized the top trends influencing K-12 design as follows:

Prioritizing Health & Wellness
Being implemented widely across the education spectrum, schools are prioritizing natural light and access to the outdoors, like secure courtyards and garage doors in exterior rooms. All-inclusive design is a growing trend in schools as well, focusing on design that recognizes diversity and uniqueness. This moves beyond ADA requirements and focuses on areas like designing for color blindness.

Designing for the Next Stage
A growing trend is grade schools designing facilities and campuses to mimic higher education. Like a college campus, this allows students to study, work, interact and be creative outside of the classroom in a campus-like environment.

Traditional desk and chair setups are being replaced in some instances by chairs with wheels and modular furniture that can be strategically moved, to simulate higher education and work environments. This also fosters collaborative work, a vital skill as children develop.

Creating Flexible Spaces
Whether out of necessity or just for efficiency purposes, the intentional design of flexible spaces is on the rise. Having areas that serve as hubs for students to collaborate or problem-solve is proving to be an important space in grade schools. With a trend of educators transitioning to guides who lead students to problem-solve, it’s imperative to have spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate shifting educational philosophies.

Copyright 2021 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Armstrong Flooring, Interface, Daltile, Mohawk Industries, Engineered Floors, LLC, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Tarkett