Now What? — A six-part series focused on education fixes as we head back to school in person.
As schools around the country sought a safe way to bring students back to classrooms last year, a solution emerged that had worked a century ago during another health crisis.
In the early 1900s, tuberculosis raged unchecked, and the spread was particularly bad amongst children. To mitigate transmission, a pair of Rhode Island doctors offered an idea for a fresh-air classroom. They launched their first school in Providence in 1908, and at the end of the year, not a single child got sick.
Two years later, 65 fresh-air schools opened around the country and hundreds more around the world. But with the advent of antibiotics after World War II, the wave of outdoor classrooms faded.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020, leaders from four environmental education organizations formed the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative to once again encourage schools and districts to look beyond their classroom walls.
“A century ago, schools around the world used outdoor learning, and it’s a time-tested solution that we thought would work today,” says initiative co-founder Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, one of the four environmental education organizations involved.
Along with colleagues from the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California Berkeley, the San Mateo County Office of Education’s Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative, and Ten Strands, Danks convened a nearly 300-person volunteer force of educators, public health officials, landscape architects, and more to create an online learning library with free tools and resources for schools to create their own outdoor learning spaces.
As a result, schools and districts from Washington to Wisconsin, Maine and Texas, creatively used outdoor spaces to safely reopen. Now, the initiative is pushing for outdoor learning not simply as a response to the current pandemic, but a long-term solution to many of the inequities systemic in traditional academic settings.
“We say our purpose is to make outdoor learning Plan A,” Danks says.
What to consider when thinking about outside space at school
It’s a flexible alternative. With the CDC once again recommending as much fresh air as possible for students and educators, outdoor classrooms can be an easy and cheaper way to offer better air quality, as well as a way to increase school capacity. However, rather than thinking about moving everyone outside immediately, Danks says schools can start by having meals and afterschool programs or music classes outdoors.
The economic investment in these spaces can also be flexible. While some schools purchased tents or installed outdoor Wi-Fi, others discovered solutions as simple as giving their students a 5-gallon bucket that could be used to carry supplies, then flipped over to serve as a seat under a shady tree. With a return to “normal” school still uncertain with the spread of the Delta variant and increasing mask mandates, outdoor classes, Danks says, could prove an alternative for years to come.
“This is about schools and districts making plans for ongoing resilience,” says Danks. “COVID-19 is not the last event they will have to plan for, and the outdoor classroom is a good strategy to have in their arsenal.”