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Becky McLean, the head of a small charter school in northeast Denver, is anticipating an important delivery around Labor Day: three 700-pound shade structures.
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The new semi-permanent canopies are a key part of the school’s plan to keep students outside for a good chunk of the day once in-person learning starts Sept. 8. Preschoolers and kindergarteners will return first, each equipped with a stadium-style seat they can plop on the new outdoor rugs in their fresh-air classrooms.
McLean’s school — a health and wellness-themed school called Academy 360 — is among a host of schools in Colorado and the nation using outdoor learning to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission as in-person instruction resumes. Top health experts, including infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, have endorsed the idea and the American Academy of Pediatrics has classified the use of outdoor spaces as a high-priority school reopening strategy.
“It really is unprecedented how many schools are considering this as a serious option,” said Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, one of four organizations leading a national effort to help schools plan for outdoor learning during the pandemic. “I think school districts are heeding the call.”
MORE: With Colorado schools resuming classes amid coronavirus, the outdoors provides a safe place to learn
Danks, whose group is based in Berkeley, California, said learning outdoors solves some of the innate structural problems of indoor classrooms, such as poor ventilation and a lack of space to ensure students stay 6 feet apart. Plus, educators say that even if outdoor learning doesn’t last — either because of bad weather or COVID-19 outbreaks that send students home — it can give teachers a chance to build face-to-face relationships with students early on.
How schools will use the outdoors this fall ranges widely. Danks said some are planning for nearly 100% outdoor lessons and others are simply adding more outside time than usual. Costs vary as well, with some schools using trees for shade, and $10 hay bales, donated logs, or yoga mats for seating. Others are springing for permanent or semi-permanent furnishings, from shade structures to outdoor chair-desk combinations.