It’s Autumn and school, in whatever format your community is holding class, is back in session. Whether children attend in person, via online links, or using a combination approach, one thing is certain children, parents, and teachers are all feeling stress about the ongoing situation, especially when children are attending in person classes with new rules and new schedules for parents to adapt to.
The CDC has issued helpful operational considerations to protect students, teachers, and staff and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Among these recommendations for school settings are suggestions to increase airflow and ventilation within the building. Suggestions for indoor ventilation include increasing the airflow from outdoors, using fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows, and decreasing occupancy in areas where outdoor ventilation cannot be increased.
Creating outdoor classrooms are another CDC suggestion to help promote physical distancing, as most schools will be unable to fit all their students indoors while following distancing requirements. If an average class size of 20 to 25 students would need to be cut back to 15 to 18 students per classroom to allow for a six-foot separation of desks, that means that even with measures like plexiglass barriers between desks, many schools could expect to need overflow space for 25% to 35% of their students. Outdoor classrooms, where space and weather conditions allow, provide benefits to help deal with this challenge:
- There is more room to spread out, making desk and student separation easier.
- Outdoor classrooms fit well with cohort or “pod” group separation/isolation approaches.
- Educator safety can be better supported particularly for teachers and staff who may be over 50.
- There is more ability to match a limited number of pre-K-12 staff and faculty members with larger classes to offset staff shortages.
- There are added benefits, such as more ability to provide room for students to eat but stay safely apart during meal times and less opportunity for them to experience crowded corridors.
A variety of research tells us that being outdoors can help students deal with stress, and promote attention span and memory skills.
Some states, like Maine and North Carolina offer grant assistance to help build outdoor class space. Other schools, like Suntree Elementary in Florida, are taking matters into their own hands and using grass roots fundraising options, like Go Fund Me, to build spaces for outdoor learning. Other funds may be made available to improve school infrastructure to deal with COVID 19. However, without a concerted effort to push for outdoor classroom development at the state and local level, it’s reasonable to expect that available funds will go largely to indoor improvements and protocols. There are also weather-related challenges to overcome, but with appropriate funding, outdoor heaters, shade, and shelters can become part of the plan. There has never been a better time for outdoor-education advocates to help make the case for outdoor learning, and ensure that federal, state and local funding applied to school reopening is viewed as an opportunity for outdoor classrooms that should not be missed.