This story was originally published by Chalkbeat Colorado. More at chalkbeat.org.
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.
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.”
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.