Is outdoor learning the best way for schools to combat COVID-19?

outdoor schools classroom
Photo via Richardelainechambers/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
  • Schools prepare to resume fall classes, but COVID-19 is not eradicated
  • Outdoor learning might be the best method to combat the virus in schools
  • Shifting to outdoor classes presents serious hurdles

The coronavirus pandemic has changed life for everyone. In countries where infection numbers are continuing to rise, people are faced with a potential choice between returning to life as normal and staying safe. As the fall semester begins, questions about the safety of schools and universities are on the forefront of parents’ minds. Since it’s so important for kids to return to school, are outdoor schools or outdoor classes the best way to keep them safe?

The CDC continues to recommend mask wearing and social distancing as some of the best approaches to keeping COVID-19 in check. In school settings, these measures can seem all but impossible to enforce. Elementary-aged children will not be able to wear masks for hours at a time, and they could struggle to understand the necessity of physical distancing. Middle and high-school aged students are often crammed into very small spaces—on busses and in classrooms or cafeterias—and already, we’ve seen the results of lax mask-wearing when they’re packed in together in hallways. 

All of these issues, along with the poor ventilation many schools offer, have stacked to create a frightening dilemma for parents. Students, from pre-K to post-grad, have been on hold or learning remotely since March. It is important for children to attend school for a multitude of reasons, but if returning to schools is a ticking coronavirus time-bomb, many parents are determined to keep their kids home. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response team, is urging schools to find as many openings for outdoor classes as possible. Schools should determine their reopening strategy on a state-to-state basis, he noted, but for those looking to resume in-person classes, more open environments should be a priority. Leaving windows open on bus rides is another recommended measure.

Rice University, in Houston, is taking the advice to heart. 

The university plans to host the majority of its in-person classes in massive temporary tents. Students and teachers will tote laptops and foldable chairs into nine sprawling tents across the open campus spaces. The tents are intended to provide more ability to physically distance, as well as better ventilation. The tents will all be “lighted, cooled, heated, and ventilated” to ensure that students are learning in a comfortable environment. 

Schools in Seattle are honing in on similarly creative ideas for resuming classes. The school year will begin remotely, with the potential for outdoor classes in the future. Expanded tech support, more flexibility in grading, and a change in how schools track engagement are all being implemented to ease the transition. 

There are still quite a few kinks to work out. Schools banking on remote learning will be forced to ensure that every student—rich and poor—has access to a computer. Parents will have to continue upending their typical lives to accommodate for homeschooling and Zoom learning options. Outdoor classes will present plenty of issues of their own, particularly as the U.S. moves into winter. 

The schools that adapt will likely set a precedent for educational institutions around the world.

“Get as much outdoors as you can,” Fauci said. “If you look at the superspreader events that have occurred, they’re almost always inside.”

More college coronavirus news:

Sources: ABC News, Houston Chronicle, Seattle Times, The Atlantic

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