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Could Empty Malls Become Classrooms This Fall?


Sep 04, 2020 by Maurie Backman
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For many parents, the 2020-2021 school year won't be off to an easy start. With school districts across the country opening on an all-remote basis in an effort to keep students and staff safe from coronavirus, a lot of families are in for a major struggle on multiple levels.

First, there's the technology issue. Many households don't have access to a reliable internet connection -- especially those in rural parts of the country where service is notoriously spotty. Then there's the child care issue. Many families rely on school systems to provide child care so they can work. In the absence of in-person learning, a lot of people are still scrambling to secure care to avoid giving up their livelihood and paychecks.

At the same time, there's been a sharp decline in mall traffic since the pandemic began, due in part to capacity restrictions and also due to the fact that many consumers are simply too nervous to return to in-person shopping. As such, malls actually have a prime opportunity to boost their revenue while fulfilling a very important need for parents by converting unused space to learning hubs.

Will malls become virtual learning centers this fall?

With full-time school being off the table for so many children nationwide, many families are instead looking to learning centers -- places where they can drop off their children and have them supervised while they log onto their classes remotely and keep up with their academic responsibilities. Many retailers are closing stores in the wake of the pandemic and other mall spaces have been largely unoccupied due to ongoing restrictions, and so mall owners may want to think about shifting gears, partnering with child care providers, and opening their doors to desperate families who need a place to drop their kids off during the day.

One Maryland mall is already going this route. A gaming center within the TownMall of Westminster that's largely been empty since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic will instead be hosting students for virtual learning this fall.

It's a win-win situation. More foot traffic to malls means increased revenue, or at least the potential for it. And given the ways malls have been struggling of late, that's a very positive thing. Drawing in customers has been a concern for malls ever since a number of major department stores announced store closures earlier in the year. And since learning centers can fill a specific need right now, it's an easy way to get more people into the building.

Of course, there are logistical considerations to account for when converting mall space to learning space. These centers will need to be staffed, sanitized, and maintained, which will result in added expenses. But given the crisis malls are in, and the road they're headed down, embracing the learning center experience is a viable next step at this stage of the game. And it may even spur a longer-term trend as retailers increasingly die out and malls do everything in their power to avoid following suit.

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