Classrooms without walls, and hopefully COVID
By Amelia Nierenberg
First graders sit crisscross applesauce on tree stumps, hands sky-high to ask a question. Third graders peer closely at the plants growing in class gardens, or spread themselves out in a sunflower-filled space to read. When the sun beats down, students take shelter under shades made from boat sails.
That’s what a school day is like this year in one community on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where every student now spends at least part of the day learning outdoors — at least when the rain holds off.
Seeking ways to teach safely during the pandemic, schools across the United States have embraced the idea of classes in the open air, as Americans did during disease outbreaks a century ago.
The efforts to throw tents over playgrounds and arrange desks in parks and parking lots have brought new life to an outdoor education movement, inspired in part by Scandinavian “forest schools” where children bundle up against frigid temperatures for long romps in the snow.
“The outside provides much more flexibility,” said Sharon Danks, the chief executive of Green Schoolyards America and the coordinator of the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which formed in May. “You can have a 6-foot-apart seating chart, and have enough space to move around.”
While some educators balked at the costs and logistical hurdles, others embraced the idea, with teachers learning carpentry to build their own outdoor classrooms, and parents raising money and hitting up local businesses for lumber.
“COVID has hastened the pace of a shift toward trying to take better advantage of the outdoors,” said Maria Libby, the superintendent of the Five Town Community School District in Rockport, Maine, who bought tents and Adirondack chairs for outdoor classrooms.
Here is a look at four American schools where students are learning in the open air, and where at least some parents and teachers hope that the temporary measures might become permanent, for as long as the weather cooperates.
Falmouth Public Schools
Amy Leonardi envied private schools that seemed to have no problem holding class outdoors. “Montessori-style, or Waldorf, they’ve been doing this kind of thing for a long time,” she said. “But to do it in the public school system has been kind of prohibitive.”
This summer, though, it became clear that outdoor classrooms might be the only way to keep students in school during the pandemic. So Leonardi, with one child in elementary school and one soon to enter, volunteered to lead the district’s outdoor learning project committee.
They spent the summer re-imagining the spaces around several school buildings. A community garden, for example, seemed a perfect spot to hold science classes and take breaks. Then she organized a team to obtain equipment, coordinate construction and raise donations.
Lori Duerr, the Falmouth Public Schools superintendent, said the district didn’t have to spend money on the project because the community stepped up. “These are not just parents,” she said. “These are just community people who are jumping in to also help.”
Local lumber companies and landscapers donated stumps for seats. Families pitched in old outdoor gear. And Leonardi gave one group of parents the job of writing “thank you” notes to contributors.
“It’s a great example for the kids,” she said. “They’re getting the benefit of the outdoor learning — health-wise, academically and mental health — but they’re also seeing an entire community come together for them. That’s a powerful message, too.”
Essex Street Academy
New York City
Well before the coronavirus, professional graffiti artists painted murals on the walls atop Essex Street Academy, a public school in Lower Manhattan. The school hosted events under the sky. After classes, children played soccer on a rubber field and shot hoops on the basketball court.
Now, the roof doubles as a classroom space.
“We didn’t really have to modify anything, because it’s technically a schoolyard,” said Wallace Simpson, the school’s principal. “It’s designed to be used.”
New York City, which has a long history of holding classes outside during disease outbreaks, approved about 1,100 proposals for public schools to move students outdoors this fall. Some wanted to close down streets or take to parks. Essex Street Academy students just had to climb the stairs.
Samaiya Bailey, 17, a senior, said she loves the breaks she takes on the roof between classes. There, she can see her friends, at a safe distance.
“When I see them, I don’t hug them,” she said. “I do that little elbow touch.”
Like all New Yorkers who stayed in the city this spring for the early months of the pandemic, students remember the crushing fear and claustrophobia that gripped their neighborhoods. As the weather turns crisp, they’re wearing hoodies and jackets to stretch out their time on the roof as long as possible.
“Even though I’m not taking my mask off, I’m getting fresh air,” Bailey said. “I’m able to be more open and spacious, instead of being crammed up in that classroom.”
Lakeside School District
Hot Springs, Arkansas
At the start of each school day, Dana Hotho’s students ask: “Where are we learning today?”
It’s a fair question. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Hotho takes her class from Lakeside Intermediate School to Garvan Woodland Gardens at the University of Arkansas. The program in the botanical garden, developed over the summer by Bruce Orr, an assistant superintendent, serves students across the district with special needs.
Sometimes, Hotho, her fellow teachers and paraprofessional aides conduct class at four wrought-iron tables. With white boards and hand sanitizer, the students practice their letters. (On a recent week, the class was focused on the letter H.)
As they work, she plays quiet classical music from a Bluetooth speaker. A peacock named George might wander through class.
“It’s just peaceful to have George in your presence,” Hotho said, laughing. “I just can’t tell you how wonderful it is.”
Often, though, she uses the outdoor space for activities that would be impossible in a classroom. She weaves counting lessons into socially distanced dance parties or sends children on scavenger hunts through the gardens.
“The kids are learning, and they don’t even know they’re learning,” Hotho said. “They just think they’re having a good time.”
The space also helps special-needs students manage and regulate their emotions. When an overstimulated child starts to show signs of a meltdown, Hotho will often suggest taking a deep breath.
“When you take a deep breath in the classroom, it’s a different deep breath than when you’re sitting at Garvan Gardens,” Hotho said.
Prairie Hill Waldorf School
At the Prairie Hill Waldorf School outside of Milwaukee, students do not use technology in the classroom until middle school. And even then, they use it sparingly, under an educational philosophy developed a century ago in Germany and followed at some private and charter schools in the United States.
“Virtual learning definitely isn’t a strong option for us, so we wanted to come back to school in a safe way,” said Lindsey Earle, a fourth-grade teacher at the Prairie Hill school, which has about 125 students in pre-K to eighth grade.
Her idea for how to do that: Build a 12-sided outdoor classroom.
Earle spent the summer months working alongside parent volunteers to create the space, and the outdoors easily become part of her lessons on Wisconsin history and geography.
“A lot of what we do incorporates the natural world,” Earle said. “With Wisconsin geography, what better way to be out and exploring it? We’re talking about glaciers and the landforms that were left over by the glaciers. We can even see some of those on our properties.”
Earle installed a wood-burning clay stove in her classroom, which she hopes will heat the space through the snowy winter months. She is still trying to raise donations for a roof, but a tarp works for now. And it is not like her 13 students haven’t been in the cold before, growing up in Wisconsin.
“It feels like we’re camping all day long,” she said, laughing. “With camping comes a lot of packing, a lot of schlepping, a lot of back and forth. It’s trials and tribulations, but in the end, you’re just glad that you did it.”