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Schools should reopen outdoors

It reduces many of the contagion concerns, while boosting students' overall health and resilience.

A video posted online earlier this month depicts the measures that schools in China are taking to ensure children don't spread the coronavirus. It shows carefully distanced lineups, plastic face shields, disposable masks, handwashing stations, shoe disinfectant spray, an ozone machine, thermometer, and plexiglass barriers around individual desks. While these measures may make sense in densely populated urban areas, it seems overkill for a rural region like mine, where we have zero hospitalized COVID-19 cases in the entire county and our town's total number has not exceeded four throughout the pandemic. It begs the question, “Is there another, better way to reopen schools in less populated regions?”

Treehugger's design editor Lloyd Alter suggested open air schools in an article several weeks ago. He took readers on a fascinating journey through the history of these outdoor institutions that were designed at the turn of the twentieth century to “get pre-tubercular city children out into the open air and away from crowded cities,” while also giving them an education. This, he said, could be a model for post-coronavirus times.

I became curious as to whether or not anyone else was talking about this, as it struck me as supremely logical, and soon I came across an article in The Guardian that said educators in Scotland are doing precisely this. The country is already impressively dedicated to expanding outdoor education, having planned to double funded childcare this year and support many town councils' goals to increase outdoor learning. This pandemic provides motivation to speed up that process.

As one forest school manager, Zoe Stills, told The Guardian, being outside eliminates – or at least reduces – many of the contamination concerns that the Chinese schools are tackling so rigorously.

“When you’ve got the natural world at your fingertips, you don’t need so many toys, which means fewer surfaces where the virus can be passed on.” Each child is given a bag containing their own paintbrush, crayons and glue stick, then encouraged to spread out and find their own space to do crafting activities.

Educators take further measures by having hourly handwashing and rolling lunch hours and snack times where kids eat in smaller groups. It's far easier to control infections outside. In the past, when other childhood diseases have struck, such as chicken pox, there have not been massive outbreaks because the children are not in such close quarters.

Being outside eliminates the need to restrict class sizes drastically so that seating can be safely spaced out, since the forest or meadow (or wherever you may be) is pretty much limitless in size. To quote Kenny Forsyth, CEO of a group that runs outdoor nurseries across the Scottish Highlands,

“If you have an indoor nursery with four walls and a square metrage per child defined by the local council, then the number of children who can come back will be limited by social distancing. You can manage and control infection risk better outdoors, and we are a better option, especially at the time of year. The biggest single issue is that there are not enough of us to go round.”

For kids who are too old to go to nursery school, classes could be held in outdoor pavilions that are constructed in school yards. My own kids' school has one (pictured above), a lovely covered structure with bench seating and no walls that, prior to the pandemic, was terribly underused. According to one of my children, “They built it for no reason,” and none has ever had a class held in it. This is unfortunate, but now could be a chance for outdoor classrooms to thrive. Many of the same lessons could be conducted outside (minus the SMART board, of course) with much less fear of contagion.

A rise in outdoor schools would be most relevant to younger children – say, under the age of 10 – as these are the kids whose presence at home makes it harder for parents to get work done and whose schoolwork can afford to be less desk-based and more active, experiential, and exploratory. Older kids would benefit, too, but they're more capable of managing self-directed online learning at home than a younger child is, which is why I think that every school board should look at how it can expand junior elementary classrooms outside in August and September, when most classes (hopefully) resume.

I realize that many places are not conducive to full days of outdoor learning year-round, but most young children are capable of playing outside at cold temperatures for prolonged periods of time, if dressed properly and given occasional breaks to warm up indoors or near a fire. And if they have leaders offering some degree of educational guidance and oversight, it's a better scenario than what many kids are living right now, cooped up indoors with their iPads as babysitters.

Educators would do well to look to Scotland and to Lloyd's lengthy list of historical examples for inspiration on how children can be educated outdoors. It's radical, yes, but is it any more radical than swaddling children in plexiglass and spraying them with germ-slaying chemicals multiple times a year? If anything, it's a rare opportunity to address a public health disaster while not only taking preventive measures but also improving an aspect of children's health that was previously lacking. Our kids could come out mentally and physically healthier in the long run, and with greater resilience, if given good outdoor-based educations.

It reduces many of the contagion concerns, while boosting students' overall health and resilience.