Outdoor learning is safer, but how are schools doing it?

As schools ease into the new academic year, many district administrators are sending students and educators outside to abide by social distancing rules and minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Although the Center for Disease Control recently urged schools to look for ways to utilize outdoor spaces for expanded learning opportunities, outdoor classes are nothing new: Open-air learning spaces were successfully used in the early 1900s to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. Current studies show COVID-19 is also less likely to spread outdoors. One such study in China, for example, revealed only one out of 7,000 coronavirus cases was caused by outdoor transmission.

How outdoor lessons are accomplished in practice, however, varies depending on factors like location and resources.

Learning in the woods of Vermont

This fall, students at White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vermont, will attend school in-person on a staggered schedule and completely outdoors until at least Thanksgiving.

“Outside seems like the safest way to start school,” said the school’s principal, Owen Bradley.

The outdoor environment will also be reflected in the year’s curriculum. Each student will participate in a “passion project,” which could be something like building a park bench or a picnic table for community use. They will also build weather-proofed learning benches with storage cubbies to use as a seat or a desk.

Students in this rural school are already used to learning in the elements, Bradley said, and they spend a couple of days out of the week outside unless it becomes prohibitively cold.

To accommodate the full-time outdoor learning experience this fall, the school purchased 14 20-by-20 tents for $1,400 each. Despite the pandemic, it’s important to get students outside, Bradley said.

“Some kids thrive outside,” he said. “Everyone should have a little outside time. We teach students to pay attention to where they are and to learn to sit quietly in the woods and be by yourself. That’s especially important in this ‘go-go’ world.”

Rotating classes to outdoor spaces

At Suntree Elementary in Melbourne, Florida, new outdoor spaces will allow for individual classes to learn outside, mask-free, while still keeping a six-foot distance.

The outdoor upgrades cost about $15,000, which was raised through a GoFundMe account. The funds were enough to purchase picnic tables, umbrellas for shade, trash receptacles, borders and mulch. The new space is large enough for one class per grade to use, and teachers can sign up for specific times.

“The outdoor area is between two buildings, so it has shade from the buildings as well as umbrellas,” said Principal Shari Tressler. “It’s an area where they don’t have to wear their masks and they can interact with nature.”

The efforts to improve outdoor learning spaces was underway long before the pandemic, but the urgency to implement social distancing sped up the process, Tressler said.

So far, the outdoor space has been working well. “It’s nice to see the kids outside and happy about being at school,” she said.

Outdoor solutions in San Mateo County

Ten school districts in San Mateo County, California, are actively developing outdoor learning spaces, said Andra Yeghoian, environmental literacy and sustainability coordinator for San Mateo County Office of Education. Yeghoian is working with districts to develop outdoor learning sites.

“In some cases, the districts need shade structures. At other sites, they can use trees for shade,” she said. “Schools need outdoor teaching tools, like a whiteboard, and the students need something to draw on.”

When Yeghoian taught school, she brought her students out every Monday and Friday year-round.

“Kids need to be dressed for outdoor learning, and schools may need to provide something like sweatshirts,” she said. Other needs include a bench, table and other “simple infrastructure,” she said.

Shade structures are the most expensive component of outdoor learning, she said, adding the efforts will be worth it. In her experience as a teacher, she noticed many students were able to focus better outside.

“There is wind and leaves are moving, there is a lot to look at, and it’s all natural,” she said. “Classrooms are so static. Being outside isn’t so boring.”

And for students with disabilities like ADHD, Tessler added that being outside isn’t always distracting and actually helps them focus.

Informal educators can help

In Seattle, informal educators from the city’s aquarium are offering to provide educational opportunities to small groups of at-risk students. Informal educators are trained to teach students at museums, zoos, aquariums and parks. 

Pre-pandemic, the Seattle Aquarium’s education team regularly led field trips and dispersed around the community bringing marine life to schools. In January, the aquarium had a team of 25 educators. Now, it’s down to six.

Leaders at the aquarium are offering to provide free and supervised outdoor education, along with social-emotional mentorship to the most vulnerable students.

“We are working to identify what type of specific needs there are in the social-emotional sense,” said Sean den Bok, Seattle Aquarium school and public programs manager. “The social-emotional mentorship is a big piece that’s being missed.”

The aquarium is looking for outdoor sites where students and staff can meet, whether it be the nearby park or a marina.

The services could be funded through grants and would be free to schools, den Bok said. The partnership would also help the aquarium continue to employ its education staff, many of whom have been furloughed.

Nationwide, the 30,000 informal educators who work in museums, aquariums, zoos and similar facilities have been subject to mass layoffs in the wake of COVID-19.

“This could be a mutually beneficial opportunity,” said Craig Strang, co-chair of the California Environmental Literacy Initiative at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and associate director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at University of California, Berkeley. “The unemployed, informal educators could help the education system by bringing the students back for in-person learning.”

A recent survey indicated 38% of the informal education institutions, such as botanical gardens and outdoor learning centers, don’t expect to be able to reopen, Strang said.

Allowing these informal educators to contribute to safe, in-person learning in outdoor environments could be a win-win, Strang said.

“Outdoor learning can be better than indoor learning, especially for students coming from communities of color, or without a parent at home,” he said. “COVID became a huge equity issue that must be addressed.” 

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