It is back to school season in many parts of the world and authorities are none the more wiser in terms of how to go about it. Early into the lockdown, we featured a piece in the 3L&3S about why closing schools for long causes life-long harm and increases inequality and also the shortcomings of online classes. Several countries are experimenting with smaller class sizes to maintain social distancing and therefore fewer class days in a week given infrastructure constraints. This piece recommends exploring outdoor classes. It draws upon the experience a century ago when schools opted for outdoor schooling to fight the plague and did so quite successfully. It also points to studies showing significantly reducing risk of fresh-air transmission. Furthermore, the piece explores the benefits of outdoor schooling on learning itself. And finally, the need to protect our teachers who will be the most exposed.
“In New York, the nation’s largest school system, students will attend live classes only a few days a week, a policy that has angered both exhausted parents, who feel that it is not nearly enough, and many teachers, who fear it as way too much.
At the same time, one of the few things we know about the coronavirus with any degree of certainty is that the risk of contracting it diminishes outside — a review of 7,000 cases in China recorded only one instance of fresh-air transmission. While this ought to have activated a war-room focus toward the goal of moving as much teaching as possible outdoors, nothing like that has happened.
Outdoor learning, though, is not a wood nymph fantasy; the body of evidence suggesting the ways it benefits students, younger ones in particular, is ever growing.
A 2018 study conducted over an academic year looked at the emotional, cognitive and behavioral challenges facing 161 fifth graders. It found that those participating in an outdoor science class showed increased attention over those in a control group who continued to learn conventionally. At John M. Patterson, an elementary school in Philadelphia, suspensions went from 50 a year to zero after a playground was built in which students maintain a rain-garden and take gym and some science classes, the principal, Kenneth Jessup, told me.
Recently, an examination of three groups of students in Bangladesh found that those who studied math and science in a transformed schoolyard did better academically than those who were contained inside. Beyond that, hundreds of studies over the years have demonstrated a positive correlation between engagement with nature and academics; some researchers have found that outdoor learning can improve both standardized test scores and graduation rates.
It is also possible that all kindergarten, first- and second-grade classes could be held outside, with the natural environment deployed as a resource for math and science education, as one public-school teacher proposed to me. Those grades account for nearly a quarter of all students in the system. Alternatively, schools could use as much accessible outdoor space as possible to reduce the number of students in a building at any given time, thus allowing for proper social distancing. Instead of rotating between live school and remote learning, children could rotate between indoor and outdoor work during the course of the day. As Ms. Milligan-Toffler, of the Children & Nature Network, has argued, reading, reflective writing and gym all lend themselves to being experienced outside.
Teachers, who are the ones in greatest jeopardy of getting sick when schools reopen, seem to be the most vocal proponents. “I do think it’s doable,’’ Liat Olenick, a schoolteacher in Brooklyn who has been advocating for outdoor learning during the pandemic, told me. “Do I think it will be easy? No. But given that all our other choices are terrible it is worth considering.”
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