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Will the Outdoors Become the New Classroom of the COVID Era?

Outdoor learning can slash the odds that in-person classes will put staff or students at risk of contracting the coronavirus. A national coalition is developing guidelines and resources to help schools in any climate.

Schools are reopening, and there’s pressure for teachers and students to wean themselves off remote learning and return to their classrooms. Politicians, working parents and pandemic skeptics aren’t the only ones demanding a return to normal learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” 

Anxiety and uncertainty about how and when campuses can open safely, complicated by ups and downs in COVID-19 transmission rates, make progress toward this goal extremely difficult. At present, only four states have statewide orders for in-person instruction and even those are subject to modification by districts. 

The situation has brought together a national coalition of educators, architects, school administrators, landscape designers, curriculum experts and other stakeholders who are thinking outside the box and developing guidelines and resources for learning outdoors.

Even if local health authorities allow schools to reopen, it’s virtually impossible to accommodate every student indoors, says Sharon Danks, a Bay Area-based environmental city planner and landscape designer. The founder of Green Schoolyards America and author of Asphalt to Ecosystems, Danks leads the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative.

“Our school buildings weren't built with enough space to have kids six feet apart in their classrooms and accommodate all the kids,” she says. “The National Council on School Facilities estimates that most schools in the country can only accommodate about 60 percent of the kids that are enrolled.”

Teaching outside might not be a cure-all, but it can help districts safely open their doors to students. Danks and her colleagues are working overtime to build a comprehensive library of no-cost resources to guide schools in identifying and creating outdoor learning spaces.

This work is essential to address the concerns of superintendents and teachers already struggling with uncertainties around opening dates, inconsistent public health messaging and guidelines, shifting schedules, troubles with remote learning and rumblings from parents with varying ideas about the "right" things to do. Outdoor learning sounds appealing to most, but if it's up to school districts to work out how and where to do it safely on their specific campus, in their specific climate, that can be one problem too many.
A school inspector and a pediatrician founded the first open air school, the Waldschule für Kränkliche Kinder ("forest school for sickly children") in Charlottenburg, Germany, in 1904 to help prevent the spread of tuberculosis. (Photo: public domain)

Risks of Indoor School Space

Inadequate space for distancing is not the only safety concern facing school leaders, notes Karen Cowe, an education industry executive who is the CEO of the nonprofit Ten Strands, a partner in the initiative. “As we've been going through this process, we’ve learned that your chances of catching the virus are 20 times greater indoors than outdoors,” she says.

The idea of taking students outside to reduce exposure to a pathogen is not new. The “open air” school movement grew out of work by a German pediatrician who created a forest school in 1904, hoping to reduce the spread of tuberculosis by providing the preferred treatment at the time: sunshine and fresh air.

By 1918, 130 American cities had open-air schools and the movement influenced the design of more traditional schools, placing an emphasis on sunlight and fresh air. The then-health commissioner for New York City, Royal S. Copeland, wrote that children who returned to school during the Spanish Flu pandemic benefited from their “clean, airy” classrooms, spaces superior to their home environments.

By contrast, modern American school buildings have become increasingly “tight,” often with windows that do not open, to promote energy efficiency. Outdoor learning advocates question whether heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can keep the air safe for students and teachers.

“The HVAC systems in our school weren’t built to be able to filter out a virus,” says Danks, underscoring her point by citing a recent study that found only 15 percent of school HVAC systems recently installed in California — a state with especially high standards for such equipment — provided adequate air quality.
An outdoor "classroom" can be as simple as a patch of shade. (Photo: Green Schoolyards America)
Thomas Kuoh

"Suboptimal" at Best

Last spring, distance learning degraded into “no learning” in many cases, and not because of the material that was posted. Craig Strang, associate director for learning and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, has heard reports from district and county superintendents that anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of their students did not participate in online learning “in any meaningful way.”

According to Strang, even students with two parents at home, high-speed connections and good devices learned half of what they would have learned at school, at best. An Education Week survey found that access to technology was a “major” problem for students in two-thirds of the highest poverty districts, a factor in a truancy rate of more than 30 percent during the last period of online-only instruction.

The decision to forgo grades, made by some districts in recognition of the unprecedented challenges students and teachers faced last spring, was another disincentive for many students. “We can generalize that remote learning last spring was suboptimal for all students and an unmitigated disaster for students of color and low-income students,” says Strang.

Despite this, remote learning will be part of the mix for the entire 2020-2021 school year. Governments are revising the definition of “attendance” to encompass specific requirements for online participation, meaning that districts could lose funding if students opt out. Lessons learned last spring will lead to better online offerings.

Still, working parents need relief from nonstop childcare. Students need help with the stresses of confinement, physical inactivity, separation from friends and teachers and the difficulty of maintaining a sustained focus for hours each day in a home environment.

“Outdoor learning presents an opportunity to solve many of these problems simultaneously, at least in part,” says Danks.

In 1918, students in the Netherlands meet outdoors despite the cold weather. (Photo: Nationaal Archief)
Fotograaf onbekend

Outdoor Learning for All Schools and Climates

The effort to reinvigorate outdoor learning as a response to COVID-19 began as a collaboration between Green Schoolyards America, the Lawrence Hall of Science, the San Mateo County Office of Education and Ten Strands.

In a short time, it has expanded to include nearly 20 other organizations and hundreds of education professionals who are participating in 10 working groups developing “chapters” for a free online resource book for educators. An 11th group is comprised of “early adopters.”

Nancy Striniste, a Virginia-based educator, landscape designer and author, is helping lead the infrastructure group. “We have people from 24 states and two foreign countries involved in just this infrastructure piece,” she says.

Within this group, there is a subgroup of designers and landscape architects who are willing to donate their services to schools to help them plan and make good use of the materials being developed.

“We’re trying to come up with no, low and mid-price options for schools, as well as options for schools that are willing or able to do capital improvements that would last beyond the pandemic,” she says.

A “no cost” outdoor classroom could be as simple as the shade of a tree or the north side of a building. Shade sails or other simple structures can be put in place at minimal cost. Adjustments, such as serving meals outdoors or outdoor reading periods, can also have value.

Some districts have approached event companies about using their tents during this period when most public events are on hold. Urban schools that lack suitable outdoor spaces hope to follow the example of restaurants, working with local government to put classrooms on closed streets.

Striniste emphasizes that the movement is gaining traction in all climate zones. “There are a lot of hot places that are trying this and a lot of cold places that are trying it,” she says. “The weather group is headed by someone from a wilderness school in Vermont where they are outdoors year-round.”

The movement is exploring weather adaptations for varying climates, including heaters and heat lamps or fans and misters. Another group of experts offers tips for dealing with problem insects in each region of the country.

“Obviously, we’re not advocating for kids to be outside when it’s dangerously hot or cold, or the air quality is bad,” says Striniste. “But there is a wide range of weather that people can cope with if they are in the right frame of mind about it and have the right clothes and infrastructure.”
Outdoor spaces allow for enough distancing to facilitate student interaction. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science)

Equity and Focus

At this moment, the desire to limit COVID-19 transmission may be motivating schools to gather students outdoors, but it’s hardly the only benefit.

“There’s considerable peer-reviewed research that shows that kids are more engaged, more focused, more attentive and more susceptible to learning complex ideas outdoors,” says Berkeley's Strang. “Science learning is enhanced outdoors in most cases — observing natural phenomena is preferable to simulating them in a classroom.”

Landscape designer Claire Latané, who teaches at CalPoly Pomona College of Environmental Design, has spent years exploring how school design can affect student wellbeing and safety. She heads a group of emergency schoolyard design volunteers for the initiative.

“When we are in nature, our heart rates go down,” she says. “Students that learn outside are calmer, nicer to each other, more able to learn creatively and collaboratively.”

Students most at risk in other ways have the greatest need of these benefits. Strang observes that the pandemic has uncovered the systemic denial of outdoor space to communities of color and lower income communities.

“We saw this in the early weeks, when state parks were closed and we were told to enjoy the outdoor spaces near our homes,” he says. “Many families don’t have nice outdoor areas within walking distance of their home.”
Once outside, students can engage in hands-on learning activities involving the natural world. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science)

Cultivating Environmental Literacy

Outdoor classrooms also set the stage for hands-on activities that help students develop environmental literacy, an understanding of the interrelationships between human and natural systems. California has placed a set of environmental principles and concepts in its education code, and is one of several states to develop environmental literacy plans. The North American Association for Environmental Education has urged Congress to fund the development of outdoor learning spaces for both public health and educational reasons.

Andra Yeghoian is the environmental literacy coordinator for the San Mateo County Office of Education, the first person ever hired to coordinate environmental literacy programs across all districts in a county. She works with 23 school districts and wants to help as many of them as possible include outdoor learning in their reopening plans, despite recent wildfires in the county.

In keeping with current state health department guidelines for the county, all schools are opening with distance learning only. Yeghoian doesn’t know for certain when in-person classes might resume, but about a third of the San Mateo districts are already moving toward developing more outdoor learning spaces, and another third have expressed interest.

“I haven’t talked to a single district that thought it was a bad idea,” she says. “Sometimes it’s just a shift of perspective that’s needed, looking at a campus with fresh eyes and seeing how much space is really there.”

The district’s environmental literacy programs strive to help students understand that damage to natural systems also affects them. Outdoor classrooms provide opportunities for lessons that demonstrate this, but so does the current crisis. Problems with rising sea levels and temperatures have been a focus in environmental education, but the pandemic is another example of the interconnectedness of life, says Yeghoian.

COVID-19 is a “zoonotic” disease, caused by a virus passed from animals to humans. Almost three fourths of all new diseases arise this way, and the likelihood that others could emerge is heightened by human behaviors including industrial farming, encroachment into wilderness and trafficking in wild animals.

“The faster we can embed these concepts into our cultural awareness, the better,” says Yeghoian. “Of course, that has to come through schools.”
Outdoor lunch space. (Photo courtesy of Green Schoolyards America)

The Experience in Maine

Some schools will be welcoming students back to campus this fall. Justin Deri is the garden manager for the Falmouth Public Schools in Falmouth, Maine. The district will open in September under a hybrid plan that incorporates both in-classroom and remote learning. Only 50 percent of district students will be allowed on campus at one time.

Deri is among the “early adopters” in the COVID-19 initiative, able to create outdoor learning spaces for immediate use. Falmouth’s elementary, middle and high schools all share an extended campus, and the district has an active garden program.

Initially, Deri was convinced he could find 25 spaces for outdoor classrooms, but as he walked the campus, he identified at least 100. With help from parents, volunteers and the community he got to work.

“We’re a coastal community,” he says. “There’s a business right in town that makes sails, and we’re working with them to design sails for our shade structures; today we received a bunch of cedar poles, so we’re going with cedar.”

As he organizes the spaces, Deri is working on organizing access to them. He plans to use Google's G Suite Calendar to make it possible for teachers to book spaces, and is arranging for staff cellphone numbers to be registered with the main office so teachers can be contacted when they are outdoors. Seating is another issue, as mornings can be wet. Straw bales are being sourced from a local farm. Deri is using CARES Act funds to purchase what he calls “go bags” for elementary students.

“They’re going to contain a half-size yoga mat, a whiteboard clipboard, dry eraser markers and a few other odds and ends,” he says. “The bags will live in the classroom with the teacher.”

Community response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, so much so that Deri has had to temper the excitement of parents eager to show up and help with construction. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t parents raising their eyebrows,” he says. One of the most heartening outcomes is the response from teachers. Many find the prospect of returning daunting, even frightening.

“We’re getting messages from them saying that this gives them a place of hope or inspiration about coming back,” he says.

Deri anticipates that it will be easy to be outdoors in September, October, April, May and June and maybe more, depending on how the new classrooms are used and how attitudes shift among teachers and students.

“A lot of people say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad apparel,” he says.
Outside reading periods help students and librarians avoid potential exposures. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science)

More Teachers Will Be Needed

Whether classes are held indoors or out, cutting their size to make distancing possible means more teachers will be needed. The COVID-19 outdoor learning initiative proposes to fill some of these places with educators from the informal science and environmental education communities. Many of the museums, zoos, science centers, outdoor schools, parks, nonprofits and other organizations that employ these men and women have been deeply affected by the economic downturn. Without support, jobs and even groups could be lost forever.

“What if we were able to take these out-of-work and furloughed educators, who are incredibly comfortable teaching outdoors, and place them into school districts where children need to return to school the most?” asks Karen Cowe. “It would take just a little bit of stimulus money to help this sector that’s been devastated by COVID-19 and put these people to work helping schools reopen.”
Building shade is a no-cost opportunity for students to gather and interact comfortably. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science)

Outdoor Learning: The New Plan A?

“There are a lot of reasons why this is going to be really important for kids,” says Nancy Striniste. “After looking at their screens for the past quarter and being traumatized by whatever they were experiencing during stay-at-home orders, they need the therapeutic benefits of being out in nature.”

Danks and her colleagues have no interest in overriding the public health orders or guidelines of any state or municipality, but they do have a goal.

“We would like schools to think about the outdoors as the new ‘Plan A,’” says Danks. “Sitting outside and using your grounds may not work for every school every day of the year, and when it doesn’t you can go to your backup plan of being online or inside.”

Equity is a priority for every aspect of work that Danks and others have undertaken, but it includes a unique perspective.

“Much of the reaction to the moment has been about making sure that kids have devices and access to the Internet,” says Cowe. “I think there’s big learning emerging about the value of people accessing the outdoors — for all sorts of reasons, including learning.”

It would be an unanticipated outcome if the biggest-ever experiment in K-12 virtual learning pushed students outdoors, away from their devices. But if it leads to educational practices that connect more of them to the Web of life that sustains them, it will only be to the good.

“There's no silver lining to this pandemic,” says Craig Strang. “But I think that there could be some lessons learned that will transcend the time of the pandemic itself.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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