This month, Berkeley public schools, like many school districts across the country, announced they will not start the year with full-time, in-person school. Soon after, J Li, a business-innovation strategist who lives in the area, noticed moms in the local Facebook groups turn, like starlings at dusk, to one topic in particular: homeschool pods.
Reluctant to face more months supervising Zoom classes, wealthy parents are grouping together in families of three or four and hiring someone to privately teach their children, at a cost of thousands of dollars a month.
“So what are poor parents going to do?” I asked Li.
“I mean, get fucked,” she said, frustrated that the government hasn’t come up with a solution for everyone.
As the first day of school rapidly approaches, people across the United States who can’t afford this system of private governesses are desperate for alternatives to in-person schooling or all-day Zoom. Both these options, after all, raise thorny objections. Teachers, and many parents, are reluctant to resume in-person schooling in the fall, fearful that children could contract the virus and spread it in their classrooms or at home. Meanwhile, virtual learning appears to be a giant failure. Not all students have internet access, so poor kids are falling behind. Even if they can get online, having a 7-year-old stare at a computer all day is generally not seen as advisable by child-development experts.
Given this dearth of good options, the best one appears to be moving the classroom outside. A small group of activists across the country are pushing for schools to consider teaching children in person, but outdoors in a park or even a parking lot. Outdoor time has always been healthy for kids, but that’s especially the case now: One study found that the odds of catching the coronavirus are nearly 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. Though it isn’t free of problems, learning outside might be the only way to provide parents with a break, kids with an adequate education, and teachers with protection from the coronavirus.
But while some schools are considering outdoor classes as at least a partial option for this fall, outdoor learning will likely be limited to tentative experiments in pockets of the country. More widespread adoption of outdoor learning has been stymied by a lack of funds, cautious local leaders, and logistical hurdles. The result is that millions of kids, even those living in temperate climates, will probably not be going to school this fall in what may be the safest way possible.
It might sound crazy, but kids learn outside all the time, and did so even before the pandemic. About 250 “forest schools” exist in the U.S., in which younger kids spend much of their time in nature, and some have stayed open during the pandemic. In Denmark and Italy, some schools have reopened in recent months because students are spending as much of their day outdoors as possible. Outdoor school has even been tried during past epidemics: In the early 1900s, during a tuberculosis outbreak in Rhode Island, kids attended a school with the windows always open, even in the winter. They sat in sleeping-bag-like blankets and had heated soapstones placed at their feet, The New York Times reported. Eventually, there were 65 such “open air” schools around the country.
And many places in less-developed countries have rudimentary classrooms that are functionally outdoors. “There are people in countries throughout the world who learn outdoors every day,” said Scott Goldstein, the director of EmpowerEd, a teacher-advocacy organization that has been working on getting schools to hold classes outside. “They use good, old-fashioned chalkboards.”
Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America, an outdoor-education advocacy group, told me that representatives from about 25 different cities, schools, and districts have been in touch with the group and are considering outdoor schooling, though none have said yet that they will definitely do school all outdoors, all the time.
Outdoor school would look like an extremely low-tech, mildly uncomfortable version of a regular school day, though perhaps with more sunscreen. Kids would be at a soccer field, in a park, or on another patch of green, advocates told me, or even in the middle of a closed road, if the school lacks green space. They’d sit under a tree or portable shade structure or simply wear sun hats. Some schools are hoping that events companies, which currently aren’t planning as many weddings or conferences, might lend them some tents. Teachers would probably retool their curriculum to be more nature-focused, and kids would get a break from the masks they’d be wearing indoors.
Some of the logistical challenges to this vision are still being ironed out. The idea is that kids would wear jackets or head for the gym or cafeteria on rainy or cold days—and schools would transition to online learning in mid-November, before the weather turned truly frosty in much of the country. In Seattle, which is hoping to do outdoor learning for part of some younger kids’ school day this year, Liza Rankin, the school-board director of the city’s northernmost district, told me that they are “used to dealing with a little rain” but nevertheless hope to get some extra jackets donated. Outdoor schooling in August or September would be harder to pull off in hotter states, where even in the shade, temperatures can be too scorching to withstand for an entire school day.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is transportation, because even if kids are able to sit in a field all day, they still have to get there somehow. Some of the outdoor-ed advocates suggested staggered shifts of buses that would shuttle a smaller-than-normal number of kids. Nancy Striniste, the founder of EarlySpace, another outdoor-education advocacy group, suggested “biking buses” and “walking buses,” in which parents would walk or bike groups of kids to school, though of course not all students live near their school or have parents with the time to do this. “We’re working on,” the transportation issue, says Lisa Luceno, the senior director of early-childhood strategy at Briya Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., which plans to educate its 65 preschoolers outdoors for a few days a week this fall.
Some of these challenges wouldn’t be impossible to overcome in temperate states such as California. In fact, if outdoor education does happen on a broad scale, it opens up the possibility that only the states with the best weather would be able to educate children in person year-round. This might give way to yet another coronavirus-induced educational disparity: between kids who live in blustery climates and kids who don’t.
But it might not even come to that. Both the San Diego and Los Angeles school districts have already announced they will start school online in the fall. People who oversee large school districts—even in sunny areas—seemed unfamiliar with the concept of outdoor school when I asked about it. “There was no proposal for outdoor learning that I recall. It was not part of the conversation in board meetings,” Maureen Magee, the communications director for the San Diego Unified School District, told me.
The same is true at a national level. When I asked Dan Domenech, the executive director of the School Superintendents Association, about outdoor education, he said, “I am not aware of any districts that are planning to do that.”
Schools that do want to experiment with outdoor learning will have to first clear some bureaucratic obstacles. In some states, districts would have to apply for waivers to be exempt from local requirements to teach school online. Most public schools, which tend to be cash-strapped even in normal times, would need some kind of additional funding for equipment and staff, either from philanthropists or local families. Much like with other aspects of the pandemic, the federal government has been largely absent from this debate, leaving schools to figure out how to open without giving them the resources to do it safely. (A request for comment from the Department of Education went unanswered.)
Schools might also need approval from their school board and from teachers’ unions, which still might not be comfortable with in-person instruction, even outdoors. In response to a request for comment on this issue, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “Using outdoor space to keep students safe and physically distant is one option in climates and on campuses that permit it, with educators who are trained and resourced to staff it, but it’s a Band-Aid solution to a much larger, long-term problem of how to safely and equitably get kids the education they need amidst a global pandemic.”
Public and private schools also have differing degrees of autonomy. In many places, public schools would be able to teach outside only if the local school district allowed in-person learning—and so far, many are reluctant to do so. Most charter schools and private schools, meanwhile, could open up in-person instruction, both indoor and outdoor, without waiting on the district’s go-ahead. This reflects those schools’ greater resources and flexibility—and also explains why in some cities, public schools are staying closed while private schools just a few miles away are going forward with in-person instruction.
But another explanation is that Americans are simply underestimating the harm to kids of spending even more time at home by themselves. In mid-July, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warned against this route, issuing a report saying that school districts should “prioritize reopening schools full time, especially for grades K-5 and students with special needs.”
I asked Vanessa Carter, an environmental-literacy content specialist with the San Francisco Unified School District, Why isn’t the movement broader? Why aren’t all elementary schools setting up tiny desks on their soccer field right now?
“I ask myself that question every day,” she said. Carter has been working to bring outdoor learning to the district. “I think that many people can only be as imaginative as what they’re familiar with.” Most kids in the U.S. go to school inside, so when you hear the words return to school, you think return to the inside of a building. As a result, the richest kids have access to homeschool pods, but the solution that might work best for poorer ones is often dismissed as too difficult before it’s even tried.
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