Are Outdoor Classrooms a Solution to the Disaster of School Reopenings?

With some districts already in the trenches of the back-to-school season — opening only to quickly close again to contain outbursts of COVID-19 — education officials across the United States continue to offer three major options for the fall semester: in-person instruction in brick-and-mortar classrooms, remote learning, and a hybrid model. But these plans leave educators, parents and students alike stuck between a semester that is unsafe or one that results in unequal access to instruction.

Meanwhile, teachers — who took to the streets across the country on August 3 — overwhelmingly do not feel safe with the plans officials have put forth in response to pressure from the White House to reopen schools. And some educators say there’s a fourth option officials are sidelining: supplementing remote learning with outdoor education. They say this model could mitigate educational disparities both short and long term, and provide an opportunity for the reimagining of schools and city streets.

Much like the uneven impact of summer break on learning loss across race and socioeconomic status, the COVID-19 crisis has furthered educational disparities in education. And learning disparities stand to worsen over the 2020-2021 school year, fueled in part by the ongoing digital divide. This dynamic will only be heightened as private primary schools like the Khan Lab School and private universities like Tulane University ensure access to in-person instruction by capitalizing on new outdoor spaces. The high-resource solutions are striking: A private school in Hamden, Connecticut, recently bought a castle to keep kids safe and physically distant while in class, and families across New York City are forming pods and pooling money to hire credentialed teachers for $30 to $40 an hour to provide full-time instruction and supervise outdoor play, snack and lunchtime. “They’re going to do outdoor learning whether the Department of Education says they should or not,” New York City public school science teacher Liat Olenick tells Truthout.

Meanwhile, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) has failed to consider outdoor learning options, let alone recess, in its reopening plans. “The question,” Olenick says, “is whether or not [outdoor learning] is going to be something that just white wealthy school districts get to do, or is it going to be something that lots of kids have access to?” Olenick points to the Forest School Movement around the world, an educational model that operates fully outdoors and focuses on experiential and relational learning. While she acknowledges that pivoting to an outdoor learning model may be out of reach for full school systems, Olenick envisions a scenario in which students in grades 4 to 12 stick with remote learning 90 percent of the time, but meet up outside weekly for advisory, mental health support and to check in with friends. Early childhood education, on the other hand, might turn to a half-day schedule that is entirely outside except for on days with serious inclement weather. Schools would need to channel funding into measures like providing outdoor hand washing and bathroom access, as well as setting up tents and purchasing outdoor attire, Olenick says.

Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage recently told WGBH that a hybrid model was among the worst options because of the increased number of contacts between school and possible additional child care providers, but noted on a press call that the outdoor model for younger children was “intriguing,” especially given that in working toward providing children with the best possible learning experiences, “we need to think about age groups differently.” Hanage pointed to evidence that reopening schools for the youngest age groups in countries like Finland has been possible with minimal evidence of transmission.

Dean of the Yale School of Public Health, Sten Vermund, tells Truthout that there are many parts of the U.S. where outdoor learning could work for much of the year, when used in combination with vigorous mask use, hand washing, physical distancing and educating students to take on mask-wearing with pride and social responsibility. Whereas indoor meetings provide the conditions for precipitous spreading of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses like tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus and measles, there is “a tremendous dilutional effect outdoors,” he says.

While Vermund calls it a “fool’s errand” to open in-person school at all in areas with a raging transmission dynamic, he thinks outdoor instruction in districts where the positivity rate is around 0.2 percent is a promising option. At the state level, positivity rates are far from meeting that threshold. Vermont and Maine are the closest, at 0.4 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively. So the outdoor framework might serve as a kind of medium-term goal for education officials to work toward as communities lower infection rates, much like New Haven has done in recent weeks, Vermund points out.

As The New York Times has reported, outdoor classrooms were a staple during the tuberculosis epidemic in the early 1900s, even during chilly New England winters, in places like Providence and New York City. More recently, educators have begun teaching outside, from Denmark to Kashmir. In addition to Olenick and her colleagues in New York City, over 3,000 people have signed a petition organized by education nonprofit EmpowerEd DC, urging Washington, D.C., public school officials to strategically close city streets and set up outdoor classrooms, and to allow educators to rely on public parks and parking lots. A group of principals in Philadelphia has similarly expressed a desire to use outdoor classrooms when in-person instruction is allowed, which may happen in November. One Philadelphia school had already charted the concrete benefits of outdoor learning spaces pre-COVID. When Patterson Elementary School transformed an asphalt surface to an outdoor learning and recreation space in 2018, in-school suspensions dropped from 50 percent to zero, WHYY reports.

As the CEO of Green Schoolyards America, a Berkeley, California, education nonprofit, told Education Week, “Even in smaller numbers, [outdoor classrooms] will help students’ mental health and reduce the time they spend at home.… If schools make that investment, it will be a cost-effective way to accommodate more kids, and it could serve them well into the future.”

But as some parents have noted on Twitter, the outdoor model doesn’t account for dangers unique to the U.S., including the risk of gun violence at school and the ongoing resistance to simple and effective public health measures like mask mandates. Others have pointed out that in regions with inclement weather, wealthier schools with budgets to provide outdoor gear could thrive in the outdoor model, while “inner city kids will freeze.” But at least in New York City, which was recently reclassified as “subtropical,” winters are growing warmer. Last year was one of the least snowy on record. “I think that people have this conception of winter that’s pre-climate catastrophe,” Olenick says. In colder or wetter places, instead of channeling limited school budgets to upgrading HVAC filters and attempting to redirect airflow by fixing windows and installing fans, state and federal dollars might pay for gear that would keep students warm and dry while learning outside.

Heather Price, a chemistry professor at North Seattle College in Washington State, says her children will not physically return to school given the current state of the pandemic in Seattle. While her willingness to consider outdoor school would depend on how masking and distancing practices are carried out, Price says outdoor education “is a more viable option during this pandemic.”

President of Long Island’s Farmingdale Federation of Teachers and high school science teacher Cordelia Anthony told Truthout she is “all for outdoor learning if possible.” But her school only has one designated outdoor classroom — and it was already overbooked before COVID.

New York City parent Josh Bell suggests officials authorize street closure during the week, much like they do for restaurants during the weekend. “What’s more important — space for cars or space for kids?” he wrote in the New York Daily News.

Giving full groups of students the opportunity to be outside would provide a reorientation around learning about neighborhood and city history in a tangible way, Olenick says. It would also enable low-income and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] students, who tend to experience unequal access to nature, with more opportunities to spend time outdoors, she says.

However, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Truthout over email that while using outdoor space to keep students safe and physically distant might be one option, “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.”

Olenick says the DOE has shrugged off outdoor options and failed to meaningfully consult teachers, who have plenty of ideas. “I think people are totally unable to think outside the box,” she says. “There’s all these acres of parks, community gardens, libraries, churches, mosques, synagogues, private outdoor spaces that could be used for schools,” in addition to city streets and rooftops.

The DOE did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

“Instead of reactionary planning, why don’t we do this better?” says Olenick.