Classrooms in Crisis: Could We Move Classes Outside?

Last week, I wrote about managing the physical space of a classroom in the time of COVID-19.  There are many questions we have about opening school under the current health conditions that remain unanswered.  I will return to more considerations about restarting the classroom indoors moving forward.  However, I will divert a bit to consider another option for teaching that has come to light recently which will allow us to explore other viable options for teaching out students.

Allow me to digress a moment to review where schools around the world are with re-opening plans.  Currently, there are three basic models being considered.  First, return students fully to school in classrooms with some form of distancing and safety protocols in place with a somewhat normal timetable.  Second, return to a form of online instruction for at least part of the year where students access their content online.  Third, provide some form of a hybrid model where students will learn in part face to face and in part online.  There are variations in these three models, but there are no other unique or trend setting considerations being made at this time.

As an American, I have seen President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, among others, push for students to return to the classroom.  Parents and teachers have said something similar, but with a caveat.  Students should return to full and normal school when it is safe to do so.  There are others who feel that students, around the world, should return to normal education to restart economies and learn face to face.  Some countries have demonstrated that it is safe to return to school after they addressed the concerns of COVID-19 in their country.  If we believe that we should have students return to school and do not believe it is safe to do so, then what are our options?

Consider the following option that is being considered in some schools in the United States and around the world.  While teaching outdoors may not be appropriate to your situation, it is a unique framework for discussion about options and possibilities that you could consider at your school.

Shift your classroom outdoors

A recent and by all appearances viable option for teaching students face to face in the fall is to move the classrooms outside.  Using the school grounds, parking lots, and perhaps streets, classes could be taught outside rather than inside the school.  While this is not a viable option for every school in the world based on climate, weather, or perhaps safety, a great number of schools could teach at least some of their classes outdoors starting in the fall.

Background

This does not come from a wild brainstorming conversation, on the contrary, some schools and educators are discussing this idea as a viable option.  In fact, there are programs that already encourage schools to get their students outdoors and in nature.  Green SchoolYards America for example has encouraged schools to turn asphalt covered playgrounds into green space to play.  Green School International has schools with classrooms that do not have walls and encourages students to be taught outdoors.  Green SchoolYards has been integral in the push for moving classes outdoors during this time of COVID-19 based on research that it is safer for students to be outdoors than in with the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative.  Even the push for outdoor kindergartens shows us we can teach students outdoors safely.

Facility Requirements

The greatest challenge a school will face is preparing facilities for teaching outdoors.  There will be costs involved for this shift to provide a teaching space outdoors.  Students will need some form of a roof over their head to provide shade or protect from the rain.  Students will need a place to sit and a place to write on.  Teachers will need a place to teach, perhaps a white board.  Projection and power for electronics would also need to be considered, but not necessarily provided.

Is it possible for a school to provide a teaching space, outdoors, with protection from the sun and rain where students could learn?  It is quite possible that they could.  A realistic issue would be space on the campus.  Is there enough space on the campus, if one includes the parking spaces and fields, to provide teaching areas for all students?  Could the school expand to the street in front of the school safely if needed?

This would be a significant shift in the spacing of the school and there would be costs involved.  Teachers would need to re-consider how their classroom was set up and the instruction provided.  Specific courses would need to consider how to teach subjects, such as science, band and choir, and art as well as others outside safely. 

Instruction and Learning

Teaching outside could look like instruction inside the classroom.  However, this will take the greatest shift for educators.  How do we teach our classes outdoors when we have limited materials available?  What does a lesson look like?  What materials do we use?  Do we teach the same outdoors as indoors?

These are very legitimate questions.  Teaching outdoors would not look the same as indoors.  I would put forth that it should not.  This is an opportunity to provide flipped lessons on basic content to be watched at home, then expand on the content in the classroom.  This provides us with an opportunity to return to written note-taking using standard practices such as Cornell Notes.  Each student could have their own notebook for each subject where they could write the notes, draw, color code, and practice their listening and writing skills.

Group discussions could take place about topics, obviously from a distance.  Socratic Seminars could occur at all levels.  Ideally, students would read text in advance, which is either provided in print or electronic format, then discuss it the next day.  Group discussions and work could take on a whole new meaning and value in this setting.

Creativity would be needed to determine how to best teach in this setting.  Each teacher would need to determine how the class looks for them.  It is important to note that teachers are not in this alone though.  There are amazing teachers in the district who can support each other to provide high quality content and ideas for others.  Subject area educators should work to support each other at all levels.  It will be a challenge, but it can be done.

Basic Needs

Food, water, shelter, toilets, and social and emotional well being are the areas that will be most relevant for our classes.  Food delivery for lunch from the kitchen is an option that most schools are mostly set up for.  In my experience, most food comes to the school pre-packaged and is heated on site.  It is then put out for students to pick up.  Food could be delivered to a class site, or students could go get food at a specific site.

Water bottles should be required at school.  Each student should have their own bottle that is labeled and left at school.  It would be filled first thing in the morning and then some method for re-filling should be provided.  These will need to be cleaned at least once a week.

Shelter, as mentioned in the facilities requirements section, would need to be provided.  Sunshade and protection from the rain would need to be purchased in the form of tents.  On days of severe weather, the classes could have a flipped school day where students stay at home and work online, or complete assigned homework or study.

Toilets.  In my opinion, students using the toilets in the building will cause minimal concern for health and safety.  Limit the number of students in the building and then close the lids before flushing to minimize overspray.  Something we should be doing anyways.  Simply do not allow large groups in the toilets at any one time.

Social and Emotional health and well being will be our greatest area of concern.  Some of our students are not in safe environments.  They may be physically threatened.  They may suffer mental abuse.  They may simply not have enough food to eat.  We need to be hyper aware of this issue and plan to address it and not increase the concerns when students are at school.  Additional counseling team support should be available as school returns to live teaching.

Staff Conflicts to Teaching Outdoors

There are some teachers who will state that they can not teach outdoors.  There will also be contractual issues that arise that will need to be addressed.  School education associations and unions will need to sit down with administration and work together to resolve these issues.  There will be concerns that must be addressed on both sides.  However, I genuinely believe if both groups work together to resolve these issues in creative ways while collaboratively resolving issues, it can work.

These are unique times.  They require creative and unique responses.  What they do not require are those teachers who simply state they can not teach outside because they do not want to.  That is not a real option, that is a positional statement.  How can you teach outside?  What in your contract prevents you from teaching outdoors?  These are administrative level issues that can be resolved.

Teachers must realize that we are addressing issues that we have not dealt with in over 100 years.  Yes, you can teach outside.  Just because you may not have your computer, projector, and PowerPoints does not mean you cannot teach.  In fact, I would argue that you could do some of your best teaching in this new environment and break free of the constraints of technology that have held you back.  If it is just because you do not want to, well, you could teach in the classroom or online.

Challenges to Teaching Outdoors

There are no simple answers to shifting entire schools outdoors.  Elementary schools would have very different issues that secondary.  Some schools will have significant weather issues such as heat and cold or storms.  Bad air quality is a reality for my school.  Some schools simply do not have the space to have all their classes outside on campus.  What about transitioning students from class to class?  Can we get Wi-Fi boosters and routers outdoors?  Will we use technology and if so, how will we charge them?  Teachers will complain.  Parents will complain. Community members will complain.  Students will complain. There will be normal student issues.  There will be new issues.  It will not be the same as teaching inside.  And these are just a few of the issues that will arise.

One issue that has not been addressed is school safety, which would be a legitimate challenge.  Outside events could happen.  Students could leave.  These are all known events and have already been planned for by most schools with clear responses already prepared.  However, it would behoove a school to give serious consideration to how their school safety might look.  For example, a school in Alaska that has issues with bears would have a very different response than a school in downtown New York.  This is also an area where facts must precede public opinion about safety.  I would put forth that, with certain exceptions, an outdoor program could be run safely.

Making the shift to outdoors would be the greatest hurdle to overcome.  There would be resistance to any plan such as this.  However, if we can show that the benefits outweigh the challenges or negatives, it is a viable possibility.

In Conclusion

There are no good answers to starting school in the fall and the above items just scratch the surface.  A great many changes need to happen to make schoolwork in the fall and all should be considered.  Everything should be on the table as an option for what school changes might occur in the next months.  The idea of opening school’s outdoors is just one option to consider.  The framework of how to do it and challenges is like any other option provided.  I hope that your school district is considering opening school in a safe, science-based manner in the fall.

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