Why Outdoor Education May Be the Key to Reopening Schools Safely

Photo by Thomas Kuoh Photography

I was camping with my family in the mountains in Colorado’s Front Range when we crossed a COVID-19 milestone: 100 days since the schools closed and our family began the now all too familiar shelter-in-place routine that much of the country is just beginning to emerge from, for better or worse. I’m fortunate enough to live in a place where there are ample outdoor recreational opportunities and getting outside has been unbelievably essential to my children’s physical and mental health throughout this time. Without school and friends, simply going for a bike ride has turned into a can’t-miss activity. 

Back in range after the weekend trip, I checked my email to find two messages from my state and local leadership in my inbox. The first was from the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment titled, “Risks & Benefits of Everyday Activities.” Among the suggestions (airline travel: higher risk, camping: lower risk) was general guidance suggesting, “Outdoor activities pose less risk than the same activity indoors.” As epidemiologists increasingly understand the transmission modes of the virus, it is becoming clear that for aerosolized viral particles, dilution is the solution.

The second email was from the local school district, outlining the various scenarios on the table for re-opening in the fall. Like many other districts around the country, all of whom are under tremendous pressure to re-open, the vision for the school year would be focused on transforming the school building and experience by halving class sizes, alternating schedules, mandatory mask wearing, physical distancing and minimizing transit/mixing between individual students and between groups of students, including eliminating activities like lunch in the cafeteria, visits to the library and the opportunity for recess. Elementary school was being re-envisioned as, well, something else, more aligned with a correctional facility than a comfortable learning environment.

How did it come to this? While the State of Colorado was branding their COVID response, “Safer at Home and in The Great Outdoors,” their school districts developed plans to pen children and staff inside poorly ventilated classrooms. Following official guidance, outdoor restaurants are taking over what were formerly known as streets and parking lots, religious institutions are gathering on lawns instead of sanctuaries. Why aren’t schools following suit?

As it turns out, I’m not the only one asking the question. There’s a rapidly growing movement underway to support schools to do just that. I spoke with Sharon Danks, CEO and Founder of Green Schoolyards America, and Craig Strang, Associate Director for Learning and Teaching at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, CA. Alongside several other core partners, Danks and Strang have been assembling research, policy and guidance to help rapidly create pathways for US K-12 public schools to transition to a model of education where outdoor learning is Plan A.

According to their research, a swift move into outdoor learning may well be the only way that school districts can reopen safely with maximum enrollment while minimizing risk. For anyone who has been paying attention to the scholarship in the past several decades, outdoor learning and exposure to nature is not simply a nice idea. A cascade of physical, emotional and academic benefits accompany even basic outdoor activities, like recess. For purposefully built models of outdoor and experiential learning, the results are even greater. I spoke to Sharon and Craig via Zoom and an edited version of our conversation is below.

Photo by Drew Kelly Photography

SHARON DANKS: We know that being outside is good for kids in general, and there’s a 30+ year old movement in the United States for outdoor learning, hands-on play and discovery based on the research about the benefits of nature to children’s health – mental health, physical health, and the learning that they do in a hands-on way outside.

Sharon Danks

At the same time, we know that greening our cities, adding trees and plants, helps the ecology of our neighborhoods. Public schools manage a vast amount of land and we’re working to make these landscapes part of the climate solution, reforesting these urban public lands which addresses both large-scale climate change as well as neighborhood-scale microclimates where children are present.

This is the basic context we started from: our work using school grounds as a benefit for children’s learning, health, engagement, quality of life, and ecological system services, and community access to open space all together.

We’re troubled by the solutions being presented. The National Council on School Facilities estimates that school buildings in general only have space for about 60 percent of their enrolled students in their classrooms if they’re asked to be six feet apart. School HVAC systems are not set up to have good air quality circulation.

It is essential that we consider the outdoor landscape as an asset to help kids spread out and to be in environments that are healthier for them in the process. The key idea is that outdoor school grounds and even nearby parks can be used as places for classes to meet, allowing education to continue in person.

CRAIG STRANG: We know from the experiment that we ran this last spring that distance learning and home learning is hugely problematic on a large scale with kids of all ages, but in particular for young kids, and especially for kids within communities of color. In California, we estimate that 40-50 percent of all the K-12 students in the state never logged on, didn’t have a formal learning experience for three or four months. The idea of being able to deliver distance teaching to kids on a large scale two or three days a week, or five days a week, is hugely damaging within communities of color and low-income communities. The digital divide has never been addressed in this state or in the country.

Craig Strang

At the same, communities of color have been historically been excluded from outdoor spaces and access to outdoor learning and recreation opportunities – national parks, state parks, local parks, jogging in your neighborhood, you name it. That lack of opportunity has also been exacerbated by shelter-in-place mandates. If your home is in a community designed without local parks and outdoor spaces within walking distance, then what?

On top of that, COVID-19 has hit Black and Latinx community much harder than the white community or other populations. There are double, triple, quadruple impacts that are really causing harm and damage in communities of color.

There wasn’t a lot of time to plan for high-quality distance learning, so there’s no expectation that it should have been great right out of the gate. I’m sure that in the fall it will be better than it was in the spring, but even the better version will be disproportionately damaging to our most vulnerable communities.

Think about it this way. Getting kids back to school in classrooms would be vastly beneficial to distance learning, and having kids learning outdoors would be even more vastly beneficial than having them in classrooms face to face. There’s plenty of research proving that kids learn more and learning is accelerated outdoors. Even limited opportunities matter: when kids come back into a classroom from an hour outdoors, they’re focused, calmer and more able to absorb content. Now add the health benefits, decreased anxiety, addressing ADHD issues, depression issues, all kinds of learning challenges, all of those things are mitigated by spending time outdoors and connecting with the natural world.

We really think that the solution that Sharon is proposing, to green and create outdoor learning spaces on school yards, and take advantage of local and regional parks within walking distance is not just a Band-Aid to put on top of a horrible situation during COVID-19. This is an opportunity to showcase and shine a light on the best possible learning environments that kids could have, which we’ve not been able to achieve pre-COVID-19. We’re really hoping that we can take advantage of this opportunity, and that what we learn from it will have a lasting benefit to our school system and communities for decades and decades, not just until there’s a vaccine.

SHARON: Investments made now will be useful later. California has 130,000 acres of school ground land at 10,000 schools. In general, these publicly owned lands are vastly underutilized for kids and communities. We also have access to neighborhood parks in a lot of our cities when school grounds are not viable. Schoolyards are our most visited public parks, essentially, and we haven’t yet funded them to live up to that potential. It is about investing in the future while meeting today’s needs to get kids outside.

Photo by Thomas Kuoh Photography

An Improvement, Not a Detraction: How Outdoor Education Could Work

TEO: What would a school day actually look like if we leveraged outdoor education as a pandemic response?

SHARON: The idea is to use the outdoors as an asset with many different potential permutations and scales. We’re advocates of a large-scale approach, but we recognize that this is going require flexibility.  

We’ve been walking through some case studies with school district partners to think about how they might use their own environments. In circumstances when school buildings have classroom doors that open directly to the outside, it’s very easy to move furniture outside. You can just put it on the shady side of the building and have your class outside. One school we were talking with was interested in having a single teacher inside supervising children in breakout groups moving between the inside and outside so that they would essentially double their classroom size, because they have big windows and they can see the immediate outdoors.

All the modeling suggesting six feet of distance between students in the classroom is predicated on the idea that kids will stay in their seat for eight hours a day. We know that is not going to happen. Even if we’re thinking of this indoor six-foot model, we need our kids to be able to spread into outdoor spaces.

A lot of districts are anticipating being able to host 50% classroom capacity. We’re exploring how a school might place the remaining students in the environment outside, either at parks or at school grounds, in order to potentially serve all enrolled students.

For schools that are modeling 100% capacity, an idea might be that these class clusters are sitting on a combination of existing infrastructure that schools have in their yard and new straw bales and logs and camping chairs and seat cushions, or whatever arrangement of furniture they’d like to have from inexpensive to more of an investment. There are a range of possibilities. They might be sitting under an event tent like you might have at a wedding or a carport or a yurt. There are many choices for outdoor shelter, for shade, and for rain that would place them out into the landscape.

Climate is another factor. In Southern California, it may be too hot go outside until November, so they’re looking at how an outdoor plan specifically from November to May. Schools with colder climates might have the reverse pattern, staying until it’s really bitter cold or outside until there’s serious thunderstorms and wind. The question we’re asking how does the outdoors become Plan A? How can we get everyone outside as much of the time as possible, looking at indoors and as backup plans rather than the other way around?

CRAIG: We would advocate for adapting instruction to the opportunity that the outdoors provides, which is usually an improvement, not a detraction from teaching and learning. This requires providing opportunities for teachers to improve their practice at outdoor learning, providing them with resources, while also infusing schools with educators who are skilled at outdoor learning. We think there’s a ready workforce that’s available and in desperate need of gainful employment that could be redeployed to solve this huge problem that the schools are facing of not being able to bring enough kids onsite.

The outdoor education, outdoor science, environmental education community has been hugely impacted by COVID-19. In a recent national survey, 30 percent of environmental education and outdoor science programs say that they are highly unlikely or certain not to reopen if social distancing stays in place and they can’t run programs at their sites through the end of the year. Only 37 percent of all the programs in the country say that they’re likely to reopen after January 1. Between 30 and 63 percent of all the programs in the country are likely not to come back.

About 1,000 organizations respond to the survey, which is just a fraction of all the programs in the country. Those 1,000 organizations said that they have 30,000 employees that will be laid off and furloughed. We think that there’s an opportunity there for a partnership, to redeploy those 30,000+ outdoor instructors who are trained, skilled, passionate, dying to work with kids again outdoors, and put them to work solving this problem that schools have that otherwise is insoluble. Even if they can expand their space capacity, schools cannot realistically expand their personnel capacity, particularly in an era of budget reduction. Schools have a personnel problem and there’s a workforce currently ready and waiting and trained up. We need to find the mechanism to put them together.

These instructors that could be redeployed could be working with kids and providing extraordinary experiences and outdoor learning, while also modeling, demonstrating and providing guidance to classroom teachers who don’t feel as comfortable in those outdoor settings, helping them to slowly, over time, adjust their instruction for the long run. It’s not a simple solution, and there are a lot of barriers, but if we could make it work it would be an extraordinarily mutually beneficial relationship. As crazy as an idea as it is, I don’t think it’s any crazier than saying that kids should be home three days a week doing distance learning while their parents are at work, and trying to figure out how to get their laptop to work, and doing worksheets and online quizzes for three or four hours a day in the best-case scenarios.

Photo by Drew Kelly Photography

Is Outdoor Education Feasible?

TEO: Public K-12 education can be compared to a massive ocean liner, where making a course correction is not a quick endeavor. It really feels that we don’t have that kind of time right now. However, we just witnessed a dramatic shift, where the entire K-12 education system went online within a matter of weeks. Clearly there were problems and it didn’t work very well, but it probably worked better than people thought it might.

CRAIG: On February 15th of 2020, distance learning was not a very high priority in our schools. If you came forward and said, “Hey, I have this great idea. I think that our schools would be a lot better if we could have some kind of distance learning thing that would individualize and allow kids to learn at their own pace, and all these great things,” people would tell you that you’re crazy, we can’t afford that, we don’t have the resources, we can barely support classroom instruction.

As you just said, overnight it became a priority. And we did it. We didn’t do a perfect job of it, but it became a priority, and as soon as it was a priority, we had the resources to do it.

The question is: What are our priorities? If it becomes a priority, the resources materialize. The core always has funding. It’s all the peripheral things that get cut back when times are hard. There’s a re-framing that needs to happen. This is a better solution, and this should be prioritized. It’s not supplemental. This is the solution.

People talk about the funding. If it’s a priority, I think we can work it out. People talk about teaching credentials for outdoor ed instuctors. There are solutions for that, especially given that the workforce that we’re talking about is trained and skilled and has been working in the field for a long time. Many states have emergency credential-waiver processes. Many schools have systems where if the students that are not with a credentialed teacher are within sight or earshot of a credentialed teacher that can supervise, that’s okay. Some of these of barriers can be addressed with the wave of a hand.

SHARON: Education is not an island, it’s the linchpin to the economy. It allows parents to go back to work, particularly parents of younger kids. The cost of not having 100 percent of students at school is extremely high and is more than enough justification for an investment in people and place to make this happen, even without considering the amount of learning loss and expanding inequality.

We know that outdoor learning is an effective and feasible solution that’s been tried before. It’s what happened in the tuberculosis epidemic and the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago. It’s also happening around the world. Other countries are looking at the same approach, including Scotland and Italy.

Under the re-opening conditions that are being envisioned, it’s arguably less complicated to have kids sitting in outdoor environments than it is having them sit in indoor environments. If they’re on the inside of a building, it might require three or four times the janitorial staff to wipe surfaces down, to sanitize everything the kids touch, every time the kids come and go and there’s a new group in, everything has to be cleaned. There’s a lot of installation of barriers and upgrading of HVAC systems that needs to happen. Outdoor education requires the kids and supplies outside. In a lot of ways this is much simpler and cheaper than the solutions that are being proposed on the interiors.

This is not to say there aren’t complications. Questions around permitting outdoor structures and bathroom access and lunch service and more require logistics integration planning that needs to happen, but I would not say that they’re barriers. We need to un-silo some of those thinking processes and bring them together to make them function smoothly. That’s the work that we’re doing right now.

Next Steps

TEO: You had a large kick-off event in early June and 1,000 people attended. I assume that the end goal is to provide road maps and resources for communities all over the country who want to rapidly implement this approach?

SHARON: There has been a groundswell of interest that we’re trying to harness. The we in this is Lawrence Hall Science collaborating with Green School Yards America, San Mateo County Office of Education and Ten Strands together alongside a whole network of partners joining us from around the country.

We’re channeling those efforts into 11 working groups that will be working over the summer in their own areas of expertise to weave together some ideas, strategies, frameworks and guidance around the following:

  • Plans to ensure equity
  • Outdoor classroom infrastructure
  • Park/school collaboration
  • Outdoor learning and instructional models 
  • Staffing and formal/nonformal partnerships
  • School program integration (with PE, recess, before/after care)
  • Community engagement
  • Health and safety considerations
  • Local and state policy shifts
  • Funding and economic models
  • Community of Practice for Early Adopters

The first 10 are setup to produce materials that can be downloaded for free by districts across the country to help them not to reinvent the wheel. The 11th group is one that doesn’t want to wait for the end of the summer for it to happen, and would like to move forward and work it out with us.

We want to invite people who are interested in joining us to look at the website and fill out a survey of how they’d like to be involved.

TEO: I think that’s the next logical question. What are the next steps if somebody really wants to get involved in this particular project and process you’re hosting? And what are the strategies that you would recommend in terms of reaching out to school districts to try to make this part of the thought process?

SHARON: It is fundamentally a collective impact problem. These are problems that are too big for any single organization to solve, so we’re trying to be the backbone to a process that allows many people from many fields to contribute ideas so that individual districts and states don’t have to do it themselves.

But we also want to inspire people to go back to their own areas and support their own school districts armed with the collective thoughts from the group, and ready to work in an organized.

CRAIG: On a larger scale, we’re hoping that every individual person who has a relationship with any school or school district – whether it’s because you have kids there or you’re an educator in some other sector, or in any way intersect with the work of schools – that all of those people will go back and raise this as a possibility to be considered, and point to the resources that are being developed.

The biggest challenge that we’re facing is where we started in this conversation, that there is an accepted paradigm pointing towards one solution:  fewer kids at school for fewer hours a week. What we’re experiencing is that schools that conceive of or become aware that there’s another possibility are generally pretty receptive to the idea, but they just hadn’t thought of it or didn’t realize that there were resources available.

That level of awareness on a large scale is what’s needed reach the tipping point. It can’t be just an individual outdoor garden coordinator at one school trying to figure it out on their own, and everybody thinks they’re crazy. Right? We need parents and superintendents, and classroom teachers, and business people all going, “Oh yeah, I heard about that! Let’s make it happen.”

SHARON:  We need to ask ourselves what kind of experience we want kids to have next year? What kind of experience do we want the adults in the schools to have next year? How can we make it safe, positive, and welcoming? Kids are coming back to school holding onto a lot of trauma from this year, and they’re going to need to be in a nurturing, supportive, calming environment when they come back. Being asked to sit in your chair inside in the same spot the entire school day with a mask on is not going to help. There is a need for us to focus on the outcome we want to see for kids, and to generate and create the environment that will bring about that shift in experience for children.

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