What Outdoor Learning Could Look Like During the Pandemic

A teacher and her students at an outdoor learning demonstration in Red Hook neighbourhood in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)
A teacher and her students at an outdoor learning demonstration in Red Hook neighbourhood in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

Although we’ve been talking about how to safely reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic for months, it can sometimes feel like we’re not any closer than we were back then. In recent months, schools have opened their doors, employing a variety of measures to try to keep the virus out of their classrooms.

A frequently discussed measure to reopen schools in a safer way is outdoor learning, which advocates argue would be safer for teachers, students, and staff. The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention include congregating in outdoor spaces in their tips for reducing the risk of getting covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

This past week, one school in Brooklyn, New York, decided to demonstrate how outdoor learning could work. If outdoor learning is widely adopted, we might end up seeing a lot more setups like this in the future.

ls It a Block Party? No, It’s a School

From far away, the outdoor learning demonstration could be mistaken for a street fair. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

From far away, the teachers, parents, and students gathered at Public School 15 in the Red Hook neighbourhood did not look like they were at school, the Associated Press reported. The AP added that the gathering could have been mistaken for a street fair or a farmer’s market.

Nonetheless, it was neither of these things, but rather a demonstration put on by Public School 15 to show what classes could look like if they held outside. The demonstration was held on the street outside of the school on Wednesday.

Take a Seat on the Concrete

Students attend an outdoor learning session in the Red Hook neighbourhood in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

The outdoor school included a crossing guard, a traffic barricade, and a hand-washing station. Children gathered around teachers — ready with portable drawing boards — and sat on cushions on the pavement far away from each other. Nearly all of the children appeared to be wearing face masks. The parents and teachers in the photos also sported them.

Taking Over the Streets

Tables were set up for students in the street at the outdoor learning demonstration in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

In late August, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that city schools — including public, charter, private, and religious schools — would be able to take their classes outside to playgrounds, streets, and parks. Per Politico, school principals that want to employ outdoor learning to prevent the spread of covid-19 will be able to apply for permits to shut down streets to traffic, thereby using that space, or set up in local parks.

“The disease doesn’t spread the same outdoors. We’ve seen that over and over. So we want to give schools the option to do as much outdoors as they can,” said de Blasio, who originally struck down the idea over bad weather concerns and bafflingly suggested that global warming could help with the whole winter thing.

The Inevitable Problems With Outdoor Learning

A student washes her hands at the outdoor learning demonstration at Public School 15. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

But de Blasio’s announcement was not met with cheers by some U.S. school officials. Mark Cannizzaro, president of Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, a union that represents principals, supervisors, and education administrators in New York City, said that although the idea of outdoor learning had real merit, school leaders would not have enough time to develop thoughtful plans.

“The shortsighted guidance on outdoor learning also lacks detail, raising serious concerns around safety and security,” Cannizzaro said in a statement to Politico. “Furthermore, without funding, this plan will exacerbate already existing disparities.”

You Need Supplies to Learn Outdoors — and Supplies Cost Money

Supplies for the outdoor setup included seat cushions for students and a portable drawing board. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

It is not clear whether the city will provide extra funding to help schools set up outdoor learning spaces. Some amenities, such are tents, are considered necessary to protect students from the rain. Politico reports that school officials acknowledged that wealthy schools have an advantage in this matter given that they have parent-teacher associations that can raise money for supplies.

What About the Weather?

The outdoor learning demonstration at Public School 15 in New York City was held on the street in front of the school. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

And even getting funds to pay for the supplies doesn’t put an end to the problems. As noted by the AP, the tents used during the demonstration could be vulnerable to wind. In addition to the rain, which you could theoretically escape from in the tent, what can schools do about the cold? Furthermore, how do they ensure that they protect students during school hours? For the demonstration, there were two guards on duty, on at each end of the block.

Why Some Say Outdoor Learning Is Worth It

A child participations in an outdoor learning demonstration at Public School 15 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt , Getty Images)

Despite all the challenges, there are some people who believe that outdoor learning would be worth it. One of those people is New York City Council Member Brad Lander.

“I think even when it gets really quite cold that kids and teachers would much rather come outside and eat their lunch outdoors than stay sitting at their desks, in the same desk they’ve been sitting at in the same room, with their masks off,” Lander said, per the AP.

While it’s true that we’re all eager for solutions, being outside is not as easy as it seems. Our planet is also going through some stuff. Bottom line: Let’s not rush into things. We’ve already seen where that’s gotten us.