Schools continue to face the challenge of providing in-person instruction during the pandemic. There is a tremendous need to be creative and find safe, uncrowded alternatives, especially since children cannot yet be safely vaccinated.
MSG hosted a Twitter Chat in December where experts discussed smart education strategies to use outdoor spaces for learning during the pandemic. Many participants contributed to the conversation, including experts from the National Charter School Resource Center, Lawrence Hall of Science, Green Schoolyards America, Ten Strands, and The Sojourner Truth School.
The Twitter Chat began by discussing why using outdoor spaces should be considered and explored for in-person learning during the pandemic. Participants agreed that outdoor spaces reduce viral transmission, compared to indoor settings. Multiple participants pointed out that getting kids back to school in safe, socially distanced in-person settings is crucial for children's mental, developmental, and social health. Many participants further agreed that the key to effectively preparing and planning for using outdoor spaces is having school boards, parents, and school administrators on board. When prompted to share best practices for using outdoor spaces for learning, participants highlighted the importance of having consistent expectations and goals for all outdoor learning spaces, including student roles to care for the outdoor space, inclement weather plans, accessible materials for classes, and schedules for each space. Access to Wi-Fi and the need for teacher to be on camera to teach students learning from home were also noted as important factors in the planning process.
Participants shared innovative ideas and smart strategies for making outdoor spaces accessible for classroom educators, especially during the pandemic – highlighting creativity and outside the box thinking as key to making it work. One participant spotlighted how streets neighboring schools in New York City were closed to provide outdoor space for kids. And in Portland, Maine, they created online academies to allow teachers and students who have a higher risk of contracting COVID to learn together. This leaves a smaller but more stable pool of possible students to teach exclusively in-person.
The discussion then shifted to exploring how COVID is magnifying the inequities within education, and examples of ways that the use of outdoor spaces for learning might either mitigate or worsen this problem. One participant mentioned that schools in more affluent neighborhoods may have more access to safe and clean parks and playgrounds in some cities, and how schools’ access to flexible funding to accommodate outdoor classrooms and student access to weather-proof gear is a barrier to equitable access to effective and safe outdoor learning. Another participant stated that because remote learning is more problematic for families with fewer resources, outdoor in-person learning increases the likelihood of more equitable instruction. Schools with more resources have also been able to utilize the outdoors more quickly this year. A few participants shared how improving outdoor infrastructure should be an important aspect of school planning and development moving forward. Including the entire school community to ensure that these outdoor spaces are designed with children, equity, nature, and climate in mind are key.
By the end of the chat, it was clear that moving learning outdoors required support from parents and local businesses to transform space – and the process deepens school-to-community bonds and leads to more innovation. There are vast benefits of using outdoor spaces for learning, health, and the environment that reach beyond needed safety during pandemic.
If you are interested in exploring the full conversation, search #OutdoorEdSpaces on Twitter.