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Schools seeking alternative to remote learning try an experiment: Outdoor classrooms

While some educators remain skeptical, others see outdoor classrooms as a way to make in-person learning safer during the pandemic.
Illustration of students and teachers setting up for outdoor school.
The idea of moving classes outside — as some schools did to combat epidemics in the last century — has gained steam. Keith Negley / for NBC News

DETROIT — With just days to go before the start of the new academic year, schools around the country are rushing to gather materials they never thought they would need: plexiglass dividers, piles of masks and internet hot spots to connect with students remotely.

And then there are schools that have an even more unusual list.

The Detroit Waldorf School in Michigan is buying carriage bolts, berry bushes and 8,000 square feet of cedar wood.

The San Francisco Unified School District has been busy gathering tree stumps.

And the Five Town Community School District in Maine is buying tents, yurts and enough all-weather snowsuits for each of its elementary school students.

These schools and districts are all laying the groundwork to move at least some instruction to outdoor classrooms. They're making a bet that the lower risk of disease transmission in the open air, and the extra space outside for children to spread out, can make it safer for students to get face-to-face instruction, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread.

"Schools need to figure out a new solution because the inside of the building doesn't work as the only solution and online learning doesn't work as the only solution," said Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America, one of a group of environmental education organizations that have launched the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative to encourage schools to move students outside.

Many school districts, including some of the largest in the country, have already announced plans to start the school year with online-only instruction. That's widely viewed as the safest way to contain the spread of the coronavirus but it creates severe financial challenges for parents who need child care to be able to go to work, and could do serious harm to children who need social interaction with their peers and in-person support from their schools.

The idea of moving classes outside — as some schools did to combat earlier epidemics in the last century — has gained steam as an alternative option.

In New York City, parents and school leaders have called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to close streets near schools to bring instruction outside. Elsewhere, parents have circulated petitions urging their schools to consider outdoor learning.

Many educators remain skeptical.

"It's a gimmick," said Kristi Wilson, the superintendent in the Buckeye Elementary School district near Phoenix and the president of the national School Superintendents Association.

"It's great to take advantage on a nice day but you can't plan for that," she said, speaking on a day last week when the temperature in Phoenix reached 113 degrees Fahrenheit. "The weather is too inconsistent."

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Schools that have spent millions of dollars in recent years to fortify their buildings with bulletproof glass to protect students from intruders might not be too keen to now put the children outside in the parking lot, she said. And many teachers have questioned whether outdoor spaces would be accessible to students with disabilities, whether students would be too distracted, and whether some kids might try to run off.

"In the spirit of innovation, you can't blame folks for putting everything on the table and certainly giving it their best shot, but I just don't know how realistic it is," Wilson said. "In theory, anything is possible but let's concentrate on doing this the right way, the safe way."

Despite these and other concerns, Danks said the outdoor learning initiative has been inundated with inquiries from schools around the country and has been hurrying to put resources online. The group is posting tipsheets for dealing with hazards such as bugs or snow, as well as budget guides for supplies like hay bale seating. The initiative is also connecting interested schools with landscape architects who've volunteered to help turn schoolyards into classrooms.

"What if Plan A were outside?" she asked. "What if, when the weather is suitable, every class met outside where nature is present and helping to calm everyone's stress? When the weather is unsuitable, you go to Plan B, which could be online or inside. Why start with something you know is not working?"

'We'll have more freedom'

At the Detroit Waldorf School, a small private preschool to eighth grade academy on the east side of Detroit, the plan to build 14 cedar wood pavilions to shelter outdoor classrooms went from a crazy idea to breaking ground in a matter of weeks, parents and teachers said.

Brian Rebain, an architect with two children in the school, said when teachers approached the school's space planning and development committee with the idea in June, committee members acted quickly.

Rebain drew up plans for the structures, which will be open on three sides and have one "teaching wall" to hang a chalkboard or other materials. The school hasn't decided whether the structures will have wooden floors or mulch, or whether they'll have canvas walls that can be rolled down to block rain, wind or sun, he said. "There's still a lot of head-scratching as we figure things out."

IMAGE: The Detroit Waldorf School
Parent volunteers help break ground as the Detroit Waldorf School begins construction of outdoor classrooms.Ro Agents / @LesLoups

Another parent architect on the committee drew up plans for the school's 4-acre property, including flowering and edible plants that will separate classrooms. A parent with ties to the construction industry helped find equipment and supplies. And, for the last several weeks, as the school has begun raising the $50,000 it needs for materials, parents and teachers have stepped in with volunteer labor. They're building a fence, clearing brush and have driven posts into the ground that will soon support the shelters.

"My kids are ready to get back, and I know a lot of other families are ready to get their kids back in school," said Gregory Franklin, a father of a preschooler and a kindergartner who was volunteering at the school last week, helping to break down playground equipment that needs to be moved.

Franklin isn't sure how he feels about sending his children back to school in a city that's been hammered by COVID-19, losing nearly 1,500 people, but the prospect of outdoor classrooms "makes me feel a lot safer," he said. "If they're talking or coughing or even sneezing, the open air will help it leave sooner than being in an enclosed area."

The school isn't planning to hold classes exclusively outside, said Ben Linstrom, a teacher who chairs the school's health and safety committee. But students will be dropped off in the morning at their outdoor classrooms. If they need to go inside because of the weather or to use the bathroom, classes can stagger their trips so not everyone is in the hallways at once, he said.

Construction begins on an outdoor learning pavilion at the Detroit Waldorf School.
Construction begins on an outdoor learning pavilion at the Detroit Waldorf School.Erin Einhorn / NBC News

"Every school has had trouble with determining how to open up safely," he said, noting that infection rates and government guidance seem to change every week.

The Waldorf curriculum, based on the teachings of early 20th century Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner, has always emphasized learning in the natural environment. Linstrom said his school would have embraced outdoor classrooms even without a pandemic, but now the wooden shelters will give the faculty more ways to respond to the changing conditions.

"We'll have more freedom," he said. "We'll have more options."

A rendering shows plans for an outdoor classroom at the Detroit Waldorf School.
A rendering shows plans for an outdoor classroom at the Detroit Waldorf School.Ignacio Moreno Elst / Detroit Waldorf School

'Trying to take advantage of the moment'

At least a dozen other schools that follow the Waldorf model are building outdoor classrooms this summer in response to COVID-19, according to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. But the idea is not just for private schools with architects on the PTA.

In Maine, the Portland Society for Architecture sent a design professional to each of the 15 main buildings in the Portland school district to "identify immediate, low-cost interventions that we could do to create at least two outdoor learning spaces for each of our schools," Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend wrote in an email, adding that the architects are also helping schools find materials and labor.

In Vermont, the White River Valley Middle School is planning a hybrid model in which students will learn from home three days a week and come to class in tents outside the school on the other two days — at least until Thanksgiving, Principal Owen Bradley said.

IMAGE: Lindley Brainard
Lindley Brainard, a technology education teacher at White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vt., explains the school's plans to set up tents outside.Glenn Russell / VTDigger

In Texas, the Austin school district is encouraging principals to consider outdoor spaces as they reconfigure their buildings to make social distancing possible, and is training educators to teach outside, Darien Clary, the district's sustainability manager, said.

The Austin district has long promoted outdoor learning to connect children with their environment and make them healthier, she said. "What COVID did is it upped the urgency."

In Seattle, though the school board is poised to vote to start the school year with remote instruction, several board members drafted a proposal to bring students together with teachers on school grounds or in city parks for at least two hours per day, four days per week.

"You'd have your morning math, [English language arts] or whatever lessons you're doing online, and then you'd come for your in-person time and meet your teacher outside the school," Liza Rankin, one of the school directors behind the proposal, said. "It could be a nature walk. It could be working in a community garden. School counselors could come or they could have drama or movement class outside."

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And in the Five Town district in coastal Camden, Maine, Superintendent Maria Libby said she's using money her district received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, to buy four $1,000 event tents for each of her three schools, plus four $18,000 heated yurts for winter classrooms. She's also buying snowsuits, plastic chairs and outdoor storage bins.

Libby had wanted for years to better take advantage of the beautiful natural resources in her district, which include a lake, river and mountainous parks. But the coronavirus took a maybe-someday idea and turned it into a right-now idea.

In addition to finding ways to reopen safely, she hopes to build nature trails or even a ropes course in the woods near her schools that students could use for many years.

"We're trying to take advantage of the moment we're in," she said. "We're trying to use the moment to make some investments that will be valuable to us beyond the time of COVID-19. Our students can benefit from being outside."

IMAGE: Detroit Waldorf School students
Detroit Waldorf School students play on a fort as their parents help build the school's outdoor classrooms.Erin Einhorn / NBC News

CORRECTION (Aug. 5, 2020, 5:14 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the cost of event tents purchased by the Five Town school district in Maine. They cost about $1,000 apiece, not $12,000.