Two years ago, our world was turned upside down. In just a matter of days, COVID-19 became a pandemic, and Illinois was shut down - schools, offices, businesses, transportation, and more. While the reality of the situation was still unclear, panic began to set in. Store shelves were emptied as we tried to protect ourselves from the unknown, creating an eerie feeling of helplessness, fear, and apprehension across the world. How society responded globally to this tragedy will be debated and studied for years to come.

The pandemic affected each of us in very different and personal ways. Losses were devastating, and “normalcy” was a moving target for all. But, being resilient humans, we began finding ways to move forward. As I watched as the teachers in my family (along with educators everywhere) tirelessly try to pivot to work with students through digital platforms, I began to understand the importance of the personal interaction and routines they were fighting so hard for. As a result, a new sense of purpose arose in my daily life.

Because the process of architecture, design, and construction is inherently collaborative, our industry had to quickly pivot and adapt as well. While personal interaction is preferable, we adjusted to virtual and remote work and learned to connect with clients effectively through all phases of a project. Work had to proceed in new ways and, in some cases, was even accelerated to take advantage of empty school buildings. During this period, the collaborative efforts of the Wight & Company team together with our clients was nothing short of remarkable.

Even though the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us, we remain in a very unfamiliar situation. The losses and challenges of the past two years will remain with us, but in time we will learn and grow from our experiences. Wight & Company is not only proud of the dedication and determination of our team as they supported this work throughout the pandemic, but also of the timely vision of clients who now have progressive learning environments to support their communities for years to come.

Now, as we mark the second anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown, I am reflecting on the tremendous work we accomplished with our clients during this unprecedented time. Even more important than how these projects happened is the positive impact they will have by offering students and teachers new spaces to collaborate, learn, and heal. In the spirit of embracing the “new normal,” here are some examples of these extraordinary projects:

Adlai E. Stevenson High School District 125

For decades, Adlai E. Stevenson High School has nurtured a student-centered culture of excellence. This latest Health and Wellness Addition, focused on celebrating the whole student experience with a timely focus on mental and physical well-being.

This 120,000gsf addition offers students and community members nearly around-the-clock access to weight training and cardiovascular equipment, exercise studio space, and a turf field for team play. A gathering stair connects the upper-level spaces to each other and to the entry lobby below. Here, students can gather for casual interactions with their peers, grab a bite to eat at the nutrition café under the stairs. The sights and sounds of the three-story green wall which serves as the biophilic backdrop for this light-filled venue.

Scheduled for completion for the start of the 2022/23 school year. The addition also further demonstrates the district’s commitment to environmental stewardship through third party certification of the project. In addition to LEED, the East Building Health and Wellness Addition is pursuing certification through the WELL Building Standard. WELL evaluates how a built environment can support the health and well-being of occupants and includes parameters such as indoor air quality, water quality, nutrition, light, acoustics, and policies in support of student and staff mental health. The photovoltaic array on the roof will offset a considerable amount of the project’s energy consumption and enable the Fieldhouse to pursue LEED Zero Energy certification.

Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205

Elmhurst SD 205 is transforming its elementary school and middle school media centers/maker spaces into vibrant, accessible destinations of social interaction and collaborative activities. Two of its oldest buildings, Lincoln and Field Elementary Schools, will be replaced in their entirety with new facilities for 600 students and 50 staff members.

The media centers and dining commons/multi-purpose rooms at each facility will be connected with a learning stair to create the "heart of the school." These spaces are positioned to ease the burden and stress placed on teachers and their students as they transition between adjoining spaces and across the facility. Light-filled and equipped with a variety of seating choices, these venues provide the perfect destination for learning and play beyond the formal classroom setting. Lincoln Elementary School is targeting completion for the 2022/23 school year. Field Elementary School will be on-line the follow year.

Maine Township High School District 207

After a successful referendum, District leadership at Maine Township High School District 207 began the process of renewing their three high schools to accommodate current learning and instructional practices, creating a platform for teacher and student collaboration and accessibility in all their facilities. The pandemic allowed some work to progress ahead of schedule and students were able to immediately benefit from some early phase improvements.

The most dramatic change is a reconfiguration and reimagining of the cafeteria and food service spaces into dining commons which are accessible before, during and after school hours for club activities, study groups and social gatherings. Comfortable seating, access to power and data, and an aesthetic vibe that honors the unique character and quality of each building provide the perfect balance of functionality and fun. Streamlined connections to surrounding programs and services make these core areas the "beating heart" of each campus and a place students can call their own. As a Maine West High School student commented during the grand opening of the new commons, “I think it looks like an entirely different school.”

With a total of 1.5 million gross square feet receiving improvements at some level, the last phase of the 4-phase project is set for completion summer 2023, but students came back to school this year to significant changes in each of their schools.

Community High School District 99

District leadership at Community High School District 99 sought and received community support, via referendum, to make extensive improvements to both of its high school campuses. Each facility addressed the common themes of safety, accessibility, air conditioning, modernization of instructional spaces, and parity between campuses. The result, however, was more than a simple facelift of the physical environments. It was a reimagination and transformation of the student experience.

At Downers Grove North High School, several key strategies were implemented to reshape the traditional organization of the building. The most prominent of the changes is the replacement of an unused exterior courtyard and surrounding hallways at the center of the campus into a new, three-story, indoor Learning Commons. Streamlined access to student resources is prioritized from this venue, including day-long food offerings, college and career planning, counseling, and guidance. Opportunities for scheduled and unexpected collaborative activities and conversations allow students, staff, and community members to connect in ways previously made impossible by the layout of the old facility. A variety of seating options are provided so that students wishing to study or “catch up” on their homework by themselves have ample choices to nestle in amongst the crowd.

Similar strategies were implemented at Downers Grove South High School adding a distinct, contemporary feel. A sweeping curved addition in the center courtyard and this new Learning Commons, serve as a hub for student life providing students and staff direct access to services, resources, as well as opportunities to study, socialize, or simply refuel with a healthy snack or beverage. The commons directly links the library, dining and performance functions with core academic areas on the second and third levels, streamlining circulations and creating countless opportunities to connect with peers. Nearing 100 feet long, this vertical pathway helps relieve hallway congestion at the far reaches of the building and facilitates interaction and contact between students, staff, and their peers throughout the school day.

North Shore School District 112

The Northwood Middle School addition/renovation project seamlessly integrated a 48,900-sf two-story classroom addition and an 8,400-sf performing arts/storm shelter addition with remodeling of the existing school for a completely modernized learning environment. The project, included all new furniture and state of the art technology, and has received LEED Silver designation.

The modernized school now features a variety of flexible spaces supporting next generation learning experiences with places to nurture each student’s emotional, social, and intellectual needs. At the heart is a connected library media center/dining commons (the “Learning Commons”) that links learning, wellness, and social experiences and provides direct connections to STEAM Labs, Communications Media Arts Labs, Art Classroom, and an outdoor Learning Courtyard.

New Trier Township High School District 203

Known for their quality of the academic and athletic programs, New Trier High School has been implementing a phased facility improvement program at the historic Winnetka Campus. Academic and arts upgrades to the campus were previously complete and the district is now modernized in health and wellness programs on the east

Project highlights include a new competition gymnasium and auxiliary gymnasium with new locker facilities, a lower level 6-lane, 160-meter indoor track with indoor artificial turf infield, strength training facilities with a cardio fitness loft, 12 classrooms including a large lecture room, and multiple small group rooms, and athletics/kinetic wellness faculty offices.