How outdoor classrooms might — and might not — be the pandemic solution schools need

·9 min read

With many brick-and-mortar schools throughout the U.S. closed this fall amid the pandemic, some districts and educators are looking to move classes outdoors — an alternative that proponents say could allow students and teachers to safely return to in-person instruction.

The concept of outdoor schools isn’t a new one in this country. According to a 2017 national survey, there are more than 250 nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating in 43 states alone. These schools serve about 10,000 children per year, according to the survey, and, on average, students and teachers spend about three-quarters of the learning day outside.

A teacher is seen reading a book to kindergarten children in a school garden in Turin, Italy, as part of a pilot test to see how schools can reopen after the coronavirus lockdown. Now schools in the U.S. are considering similar outdoor-classroom setups. (Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A teacher is seen reading a book to kindergarten children in a school garden in Turin, Italy, as part of a pilot test to see how schools can reopen after the coronavirus lockdown. Now schools in the U.S. are considering similar outdoor-classroom setups. (Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While it’s not surprising that warmer-weather states like California offer several outdoor schools, they’re also found in urban areas and in states that can experience some major temperature ranges throughout the year, including Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Most recently, on Aug. 24, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s own outdoor learning initiative, which would allow public, private and charter schools to offer in-person instruction outside. “It’s great to be outdoors in general, but we also know that the disease does not spread the same outdoors. We’ve seen that over and over. So, we want to give schools the option to do as much outdoors as they can,” de Blasio said during his daily coronavirus briefing, according to NBC New York.

However, not everyone is a fan of the idea. “The mayor’s reopening plan continues to fall short, particularly in terms of necessary testing,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement provided to Yahoo Life.

The benefits of learning outdoors

Proponents say open-air classes are a good solution to the current education dilemma, and note that there are several benefits to outdoor learning — particularly in light of the pandemic. “We know that being outdoors is lower risk for coronavirus transmission than being indoors,” Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, told the New York Times. In addition, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the UCSF School of Medicine, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the virus “doesn’t love grass or trees or clothing. I would rate these as low-risk surfaces.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that K-12 school administrators repurpose underutilized areas of schools, “including outside spaces,” to increase ways for children to social-distance if they’re able to return to in-person school in the fall.

“Outdoor learning just makes a lot of sense, and it solves some of the problems that the other solutions online and inside don’t,” Sharon Danks, an environmental city planner and chief executive officer and founder of the nonprofit Green Schoolyards America, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s just healthier to be outside.”

Craig Strang, associate director for Learning and Teaching at the University of California Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, tells Yahoo Life that, even with outdoor learning, safety is still a priority. “We’re not advocating at all gathering kids together indoors or outdoors before it’s safe to do so. [But] it will be safe to gather kids together outdoors before it will be safe to gather them together indoors.”

He adds: “We know that remote learning last spring was a disaster and particularly a disaster in communities of color and low-income communities. I’m sure it’s going to be better this fall, but it’s far less effective for children than in-person learning. When kids are able to come back to school, most schools are considering staggered schedules because most can only have about half the kids on-site at any one time while maintaining safe social distances [in classrooms]. That means even when most kids come back to school, they would [still] be doing some remote learning. We know that’s a substandard option.”

Strang says the intrinsic value of being outdoors is “huge,” from the health and safety advantages to its social and emotional benefits. “Kids are calmer, more ready to learn, and more engaged when connected to the outdoors,” he says. “An hour spent outdoors helps kids to be more focused and ready to learn for about two hours after they come back into the classroom. So there are lingering benefits to being outdoors. Social distancing is also easier. There are fewer high-touch surfaces that need to be cleaned, [and] fresh air is better in terms of not contracting the virus.”

The challenges of outdoor classrooms

Setting up outdoor classrooms, however, does have some limitations and challenges — from inclement weather to even finding outdoor space in crowded cities. Elic Senter, manager of education policy and practice at the National Education Association, tells Yahoo Life, “They are not a panacea response at this point, because of the many limitations they have for fully serving all students.” He adds, “It’s great to have a change of scenery sometimes — and some students do tie learning to ‘place,’ i.e., they remember what they learned because of where they learned it. Going outdoors is great for teaching about ecology, etc. However, many subject areas do not fit an outdoor learning space.”

Senter acknowledges that there is “some evidence to suggest that outdoor learning spaces will be safer than indoor learning spaces.” But he says that physical distancing may be “quite difficult in outdoor spaces, such as playgrounds.” Senter says that recommendations to have smaller cohorts of students when outside “in turn indicates that if only small cohorts of students can be gathered, there will need to be an increase of staff to manage and navigate this process.”

He then addresses the fact that some school districts won’t be able to find enough physical space for its students. “There is not enough green space in too many urban areas, and this issue yet again highlights the exacerbation of existing racial and social injustice[s] … [of] the pandemic,” Senter says. “Additionally, [there’s] the inability to ensure appropriate distancing; the inability to ensure that all student needs will be met, such as ensuring the audibility of the educator, access to instructional materials, access to instructional/learning devices and supports, etc.; [and] the inability to move some learning settings outdoors.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shares Senter’s concerns about equity. “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,” she tells Yahoo Life. “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.”

However, Strang says, outdoor learning can be equitable and is still “far superior to having kids in remote learning where they are isolated, have no social contact and maybe don’t have internet access or a device [such as a laptop] or an adult at home to help them.”

Green Schoolyards’ Danks says that outdoor learning can help bring kids back to school, “specifically ones who weren’t able to log in [during the spring] for one reason or another,” as well as children who may need to learn in person, such as those who require an aide. This can help “make sure the most vulnerable kids get the best education in the coming year,” she says.

For outdoor learning in urban areas, Strang says there are some outdoor spaces and schoolyards that could be used. “If it’s an asphalt playground, picnic tables with umbrellas and portable planters that fit on the asphalt to [add] greenery to soften the space and make it more inviting” can help, suggests Danks. As an alternative, Strang says that many cities have local parks that are within short distances of schools.

Another option is street closures. “Many school districts are considering closing down streets around the perimeter of the school to create more learning space and create a buffer in terms of noise and access to the public,” says Strang. “We’re seeing cities routinely closing down streets to support outdoor dining. We should [also] see cities closing down streets to support outdoor learning.”

Weather is, of course, another important factor, which, in extremely hot and cold climates, can make outdoor learning impractical. Strang says there are ways to mitigate some weather conditions, such as blocking sun exposure with open tents and sun tarps or using wind shelters and heat lamps in cold temperatures. For example, Vermont’s outdoor schools plan to use portable heaters and recharging warming pads in colder weather.

But, says Strang, “we totally recognize that weather is an issue and that outdoor learning is not necessarily a practical or perfect solution for every kid and every school every day of the year.”

Adds Danks: “It will rarely be 100 percent of the time outdoors,” but “it’s a solution that would work on any scale, from a teacher reading a book to a class under a tree to having all kids sit outside” for several classes.

For educators and school districts considering or trying to navigate outdoor learning, Danks’s Green Schoolyards recently partnered with UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science (where Strang works), Ten Strands and California’s San Mateo County Office of Education to create the National COVID-19 Learning Initiative, which provides free downloadable resources, from strategies on how to set up outdoor classroom infrastructures to ensuring equity.

It also launched a new pro bono landscape design assistance program called COVID-19 Emergency Schoolyard Design Volunteers, in order to help schools design and plan outdoor learning areas. According to Danks, about 250 volunteer designers have signed up already, and more than 125 schools in 26 states have asked the program for help. Outdoor learning, she says, “is taking off and has accelerated the most I’ve seen in 20 years.”

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