We need to send our children back to school this fall – safely. School districts across the United States are currently being led by indecisive administrators who are grappling with budget cuts while scrambling to figure out how to coordinate complicated schedules for socially distanced classes coupled with online learning. There has to be a simpler way.
School districts nationwide should be seriously considering outdoor classrooms as part of their plan. It is now understood that Covid-19 transmits less easily outdoors than inside. Learning outside would allow more children to return to school, providing the crucial social interaction and in-person instruction which is missing in remote learning, while making it easier to maintain social distancing.
This method has worked before in the face of infectious disease epidemics. During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the Boston-area prep school Rivers was able to stay mostly open when many other schools shut. Rivers had been founded three years earlier by an educator who embraced the concept of open-air schools, based on the suggestions of physicians that they could offer some protection against contagious diseases. When the school did a comparison of absence due to illness, the school reported fewer sick days overall during the 1918-1919 school year than it did the previous academic year, before the global flu pandemic.
In the fall of 1908, the city of Boston ran an open-air school for children who had tuberculosis (TB). By March of 1909, 23 of the students had recovered while the remaining 20 showed improved health. In Chicago, during the winter of 1909, children with mild TB attended school in a classroom where all the doors, windows and heat were removed and students wore layers of warm clothing.
One of the highest-ranking public health officials in the United States agrees with the health benefits of being outside. When asked about the idea of outdoor classrooms in an interview, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid), responded: “Outdoors is always better than indoors when it comes to Covid or any other respiratory infection.” And, in their guidance for reopening schools, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages schools to use outdoor spaces whenever possible.
Still not convinced? Learning outside may also help kids concentrate better and absorb more information. A study at an urban Swedish high school looked at an intervention project where half the students in a class had several lessons taught outdoors while the other half attended lessons entirely indoors. When researchers followed up five months later they found that the pupils who attended classes outside had more motivation, an appreciation for teamwork-oriented activities and better long-term retention of information. Another study, of third-graders from mainly lower-income homes, examined classroom engagement following a lesson outside in nature versus learning the same lesson after all-day indoor instruction. The classes held in nature showed significantly better student engagement, and teachers reported that disruptions were cut in half.
One US college has caught on. In Houston, Rice University purchased several open-sided circus tents to build classrooms which will be used to hold classes this fall. A similar model could be replicated in public schools.
Many districts are still offering the choice of exclusive online learning. Having this option is essential for families and teachers who don’t feel safe. For students who founder in a remote learning environment, however, going back to school is critical for their development. Outdoor classrooms could be the solution for them.
Jaime Cunningham is a freelance journalist and a vice-president of the PTA at her child’s Manhattan public elementary school. She was previously a researcher-reporter for Newsweek