The future of school may be outdoors, even after the pandemic


outdoor school

The COVID-19 pandemic has many parents concerned about sending their kids back to school. The enclosed space, and the classroom full of kids seems to be a perfect scenario for virus transmission.

For this reason, parents across the country are looking for alternative solutions. Some parents are turning to homeschooling, but for many this is simply not feasible. The answer? Outdoor schools.

Guelph Outdoor School

The Guelph Outdoor school in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, has been in operation for eight years. The school runs programs year-round in which, as the name suggests, students do all their learning outside.

There are full-day fall and winter programs for kids aged four to fourteen, many of whom are homeschooled. The others have special arrangements with their regular school to attend twice per week. These programs were previously more of a niche curriculum, as the cold winters required more stamina from the children.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, founder Chris Green says that more and more parents are looking for programming like this.

“The phone is [ringing] off the hook and I can’t even keep track,” the former school teacher said [1].

In an effort to meet the increased demand, Green and his team have added seven new programs. They have also partnered with a local Montessori school to offer a full-time option. In this program, around thirty kids in two groups and spend half the day in the classroom and half the day outdoors.

Green says that while it has always made sense to him to have learning take place outdoors, it makes even more sense now considering the situation. Several parents agree with him.

Cheryl Cadogan usually sends her thirteen-year-old son David to the outdoor school once per week, but this year will be different. Her partner is immunocompromised, so as a family they are trying to be very cautious.

Instead, David will spend a few days per week at the school, and attend his grade eight classes online. She knows there is still a risk, but also knows that risk is lower outside.

“It’s not safe for us as a family to have him go back to school,” she said [1].

Safety Outdoors

As the coronavirus has gone on, one thing has become abundantly clear: the virus’ transmission rate is much lower outside. This does not mean that it is non-existent, but experts consider being outdoors to be much safer than in.

This is because COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets. These droplets are released in the air when you talk, laugh, or cough. When you’re indoors, you are sharing more air with people, so you’re more likely to inhale these droplets from an infected person.

Some indoor spaces have poor ventilation, which can also cause droplets to hang around in the air longer. This increases the likelihood that you will breath them in [2].

Dr. Linsey Marr of Virginia Tech studies how viruses spread through the air. She describes the transmission rate outdoors by using the imagery of a smoker: when you’re outside, the smoke rapidly disperses and becomes very dilute. Inside, however, it gets trapped [1].

Other Districts Starting Outdoor Schools

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is currently trying to increase the number of outdoor learning opportunities available to its students. This, of course, is much more challenging for schools in downtown city centers.

It will not be possible for many of these schools to have full-day outdoor classes, but David Hawker-Budlovsky, Central Coordinating Principal for outdoor education at the TDSB, says that teachers will be able to schedule time in the yard.

He adds that teachers are going to need to get creative, using the community as the classroom instead.

“I think what’s really important is to be able to look at this [with] an open mind, be creative and be as flexible as possible,” he said [1].

This, of course, will be a challenge for students and teachers when the winter sets in. Pamela Gibson, a former teacher who now consults on sustainability and outdoor education with Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF), argues that there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.

Outdoor Learning May be the Only Solution

After schools closed down last spring, we learned a few lessons:

  1. Online learning was a colossal failure.
  2. Parents struggled to balance working from home and helping their kids with their schoolwork.
  3. Varying access to reliable technology put some kids at a disadvantage [3].

While many wealthy parents are choosing to pay for private tutoring for their kids this fall, this option is out of reach for poorer families. All things considered, moving the classroom outside seems to be the best option for kids, teachers, and parents.

Not Accessible for Everyone

Due to lack of funding, logistical issues, and cautious local leaders, it is unlikely that the majority of students will be attending outdoor classes this fall. Some, however, will be. 250 of these outdoor classrooms already exist in the US, called “forest schools”.

Many logistical issues still need to be worked out, like transportation, what to do in inclement weather, and how to change the curriculum to be low-tech. There are also some bureaucratic obstacles. In some states, districts will have to apply for exemption from local requirements to teach online.

Most public schools would also require some funding for equipment and staff. This funding would likely have to come from the private sector, such as donations from local families. They may also require approval from school boards and teachers’ unions.

 “Using outdoor space to keep students safe and physically distant is one option in climates and on campuses that permit it, with educators who are trained and resourced to staff it, but it’s a Band-Aid solution to a much larger, long-term problem of how to safely and equitably get kids the education they need amidst a global pandemic,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers [3].

Vanessa Carter, an environmental-literacy content specialist with the San Francisco Unified School District, questions why outdoor classrooms aren’t a broader discussion. She says when most people hear the words return to school, they immediately picture the inside of the classroom. As a result, the solution that might work best for the poorer kids is dismissed before it’s even tried.

“I think that many people can only be as imaginative as what they’re familiar with,” she says [3].

Of course, there is no perfect solution. Kids have already begun returning to school, however, and the world will be watching to see what works and what doesn’t.

Keep Reading: Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Why I am not sending my kids back to school

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