Children sitting under a shade tree learning their ABCs and multiplication tables might sound like a scene from a long-lost era, but it also might be the answer for some school systems desperately seeking ways to resume operations.
With school buildings shuttered and complaints surging about the shortcomings of online instruction, some administrators are going back to the future by taking advantage of balmy fall climates and the relative safety of the great outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Utah, teachers at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education are selecting spots that offer plentiful shade and good Wi-Fi access for students returning to the physical classroom next month.
In Bend, Oregon, preschool children at Bend Forest School will forge ahead with another year — with boots, mittens and scarfs at the ready — to learn and play in the woods. Bend is one of hundreds of “forest schools” across the nation.
At an elementary school in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, an outdoor classroom erected over the weekend by parents using materials purchased from a $3,000 grant will deliver plein-air instruction just aside a pond from STEM instructor Julia Phillips.
“We’ll be able to take samples and do observations, pull some river cane and hollow out the inside to make biodegradable straws …,” Ms. Phillips said. “And we have a very varied tree population, so we’ll be able to have students take a clue sheet and identify different trees on the grounds.”
This year, she said, “it’ll definitely come in handy.”
Creative and also dubious ways to resolve the nation’s education crisis have emerged since schools started shutting down in the spring. Some are pushing the outdoor option, while others note that empty office buildings and abandoned storefronts could provide the social distancing space that a traditional classroom cannot.
Education professionals say even the most appealing outside-the-box ideas are meeting resistance.
“As an educator, there are all kinds of questions because you know the setup needed to take care of your concerns,” Mark Weber, a New Jersey K-12 teacher and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education, recently told Fortune magazine.
“Are the kids safe? Are there adequate bathroom facilities? Can you get in and out of the facility easily? Can you monitor the children properly? Is liability taken care of?”
It may evoke comparisons to Plato’s academy or the hippie communes of the 1960s, but outdoor learning has a long and respectable history, especially during public health crises. At the dawn of the 20th century, Rhode Island doctors salvaged classrooms in an outdoor brick building in Providence to curb the transmission of tuberculosis. Even now, as Italians emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns, the education ministry is recommending that schools “map and reorganize its own spaces” to seek outside opportunities.
It is forcing America’s education system to be creative as well.
The founder of Green Schoolyards America, an outdoor learning advocacy group that calls for converting asphalt-covered school grounds into green spaces, told The Washington Times that school districts and teachers from 21 states have asked the group for help.
“We see at this time restaurants all over the country are getting permission to use sidewalks and planter boxes and lose their streets,” said Sharon Danks, CEO and founder of Green Schoolyards America. “The same cities are realizing they can do exactly the same thing for our schools.”
Practical complications abound. Bad weather could push learning indoors or force an abrupt cancellation of the day’s lesson. Access to outdoor sites must be secured. Schools also have to factor in nature’s challenges such as intense sun and blustery winds, ticks and bees, and exposure to allergens.
More temperate states such as California might appear unfairly advantaged, with temperatures dropping to 40 to 50 degrees in more northerly states, but Los Angeles this week reached into the mid- to low 90s, making any open-air education a sweaty experience and potential health hazard.
Finding an ideal open-air locale to deliver a calculus lecture doesn’t resolve logistical questions such as how to social distance on a school bus and how hot lunches are to be cooked, served and cleaned up.
Green Schoolyards America officials say the first imperative is to simplify.
“A backpack, a seat cushion, a shade hat and a clipboard — and maybe some hand sanitizer,” said Ms. Banks, recounting the basic utensils for safe outdoor learning at some schools. Adding shade via tents, awnings or even carports is required for schoolchildren and teachers. Finding Wi-Fi hot spots outdoors could prove tricky.
While school systems and universities are reporting mounting complications as they try to resume normal classroom instruction, outdoor enthusiasts are gaining devotees.
A Japanese study of 100 cases found it 20 times more likely to transmit the coronavirus — shed through spittle — in an indoor setting such as a meatpacking plant, nursing home or church than outdoors.
Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of President Trump’s COVID-19 advisory team, told Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo last week that Mother Earth might partly thwart the virus.
“Get as much outdoors as you can,” Dr. Fauci said in a Facebook Live conversation when speaking about schools’ plans to transport children in buses with the windows open. “If you look at the superspreader events that have occurred, they’re almost always inside.”
Many schools are listening. Mater Amoris Montessori School in Ashton, Maryland, announced this summer that it was taking advantage of its 13-acre campus and moving all its classes outdoors.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education even encouraged outdoor learning in its 34-page guidance published this year for reopening the state’s schools. Administrators in Princeton, New Jersey, also encouraged teachers in a proposed fall reentry plan to use outdoor learning when appropriate.
With plans for America’s 55 million schoolchildren evolving by the day and research showing children shed the coronavirus at higher rates than previously thought, parents, teachers and administrators are getting creative.
A poll from Gallup this month found the nation roughly split into thirds on the question of sending children back full time to physical classrooms, learning in a hybrid model or learning entirely in an online environment.
Some higher-income parents are dropping out of traditional schools and banding together with other parents to hire teachers and form “learning pods.” Some parents are shifting from online-learning public schools to private schools. Others are clamoring for learning packets to be completed old-fashioned style at a table with a pencil.
But those advocating open-air schooling hope their advice might take root long after the coronavirus crisis is over. Academic research, they say, has shown that outdoor learning can decrease suspensions and raise test scores.
At Tennessee’s Soddy-Daisy school, Ms. Phillips anticipates students bringing tadpoles back to the classroom, where they can settle on a carpet under fresh air to investigate their finds.
“When you can take things outside and teach, it helps build community,” said Ms. Phillips. “It helps relax [children’s] inhibitions, and they kind of look at each other differently.”