As evidence mounts that COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors, many people are getting used to spending more time outside. Hanging out at the park or dining on a restaurant patio may seem familiar, but some private schools around Newark have taken classes outside, and students are getting used to the new normal of outdoor education.
The Christina School District began the year with six weeks of virtual instruction. As district leaders pursued new strategies to bring students back safely, private schools saw upticks in admissions interest. They pitched tents, taking advantage of large campuses, small class sizes and flexible curriculums to explore what the natural environment can add to learning.
Newark Center for Creative Learning (NCCL), a K-8 school on Phillips Avenue, has four tents arranged around the central school building. Students use their backpacks as cubbies, sit on camper chairs or yoga mats and only go inside to use the bathroom.
“It was really hard over Zoom last year. I’m better at in-person learning,” said Sabine Breitenbach, an NCCL eighth-grader. “I’m really grateful that we get to be in school.”
The school brought students back in an alternating in-person and online schedule to reduce the number of students on campus at one time. Students have the option to stay home full-time.
Kate Kerrane, a seventh and eighth-grade teacher at NCCL, said at least one student started out fully remote but felt comfortable returning after seeing the school’s shift to outdoor education and the other safety strategies, including masks, sanitizing and social distancing. Kerrane said they have enforced regular testing, and had no cases among students so far.
Kerrane said the shift to outdoor learning has helped students think positively amid a turbulent time to be growing up.
“I never want to be back in my classroom,” she said. “I always like it when kids have to figure stuff out. It’s how we roll. It’s like – what are we going to do? How do you guys want to solve the problem? One kid said, ‘what are we going to do for recess?’ I was like, you guys tell me.”
Field trips are typically an important part of NCCL’s curriculum, but the school’s transport vans are too small to accommodate a socially distanced seating arrangement. While the school cut back the number of field trips, Kerrane encouraged her students to brainstorm trips they could take within walking distance and outdoors.
They reached out to Mary Torbey, a volunteer with the Newark History Museum just down the street from NCCL, and asked if she could guide walking tours of the neighborhood. A few weeks later, she was leading a group of eighth-graders along the edge of the train tracks outside the museum.
Torbey also has other plans to connect the students with Newark history throughout the semester. They hope to come in smaller groups to use the museum’s archives in a class project.
Carlos Lobo, another eighth-grader, said he’s glad they settled on outdoor learning, which lets him stay safe learning with his friends. He recalled the detailed plans that the school shared with families.
“There were three possibilities. My parents and I finished reading the first tenth of it and I was like, ‘Woah, that was a long email,’” Lobo said. “We’ve figured it out. I just have a bit more homework than normal.”
Kerrane said the staff of NCCL worked hard throughout the summer to figure out how they could best bring students back safely while continuing to offer strong educational development. They decided to invest in tents to make outdoor learning a long-term solution.
The school, which is run by a consensus-based staff, prizes communication with parents.
“We just talked about all the things that we’d have to do to be safe,” she said. “We want this to last – being able to be together.”
Kerrane tries to balance the styles of learning that best match online and in-person instruction. None of her eighth-graders are fully remote, so she tries to pack their in-person days with hands-on activities and collaborative — but socially distanced — projects. On days when the class meets online, they do more traditional school assignments.
One challenge of taking class outside while blending hybrid learning was technology. The school wheels out carts with cameras and microphones, and displays virtual students on TV screens so they can interact with classmates.
Some students also missed the air conditioning, but Kerrane’s classroom didn’t have central AC, so they were glad to get outside in the breeze. As the winter approaches, Kerrane will remind parents that the school supply list includes multiple layers of clothing — though she added that the school plans to be entirely virtual after Thanksgiving.
For Kerrane, being outside also lets the environment shape students’ learning.
Letting students learn from the world around them is at the core of outdoor education, a theme emphasized by outdoor schools long before the pandemic.
The University of Delaware runs a nature preschool through its Lab School, a program under the Department of Education & Human Development. Katie Pollock, a master teacher at the nature preschool, said its classes meet in any weather conditions.
Pollock said other programs that are new to outdoor education are worried about weather because they don’t have the experience of teaching in a storm or on a frosty winter morning.
“They’re thinking of the discomfort versus thinking of the comfort that can be brought through having experiences in all types of weather,” she said. “We also teach resilience through the weather – we’re not going to go inside just because it’s raining.”
The Lab School has run a nature preschool for three years now and uses not just the weather but the changing seasons to deepen science learning. Pollock connected this to holistic child development, adding that observing their environments can deepen students’ understanding of the world around them.
“Being able to use the environment and the surroundings in a meaningful way is really a gift,” Pollock said. “Right now, the children have been doing a lot of picking up different leaves that have fallen, and from there, we’re able to put out tree identification cards and matching games where they’re matching the different shapes of leaves to have that environmental literacy.”
She said the pandemic has not dramatically changed the way her classes approach learning, although they have taken additional measures to ensure students stay safe.
Staff must wear masks, and students are strongly encouraged to do so, although as preschoolers, they are not required to. The school increased cleaning protocols and takes the temperature of students every morning. Drop-off is staggered to reduce the number of parents around at any one time, and the school has adjusted group sizes to keep students in smaller cohorts.
Some parents may share concerns about bugs, bad weather or falling from trees. But for Pollock, outdoor education was already the safer school option even before the pandemic.
“Being outdoors is good for your mental health. Being outdoors is good for your physical health,” she said. “You’re moving more, you’re using your body and you’re building muscle. All of those things that were occurring before are still true now.”
Pollock, whose husband is a public school teacher, said she’s seen firsthand the challenges of returning to something like normal learning in public school.
While she would love to see more schools take up outdoor education, and even leads workshops for other teachers, Pollock acknowledged that the number of students in public schools would make outdoor learning hard to coordinate.
Still, she’s already seeing the impact of outdoor education becoming more mainstream as more schools take learning outside. Even many public schools in the area have set up classrooms outside that teachers can share just to get kids outside from time to time.
“I would hope that this would be one of the bright sides of the terrible things that are happening,” she said. “My hope is that children are actually able and encouraged at school to be spending more time of their long school days outdoors.”
For those students who are new to outdoor learning, they are trying to see the change as a positive and something that lets them get back to something like normal life. Juliet Klecan, an NCCL eighth-grader, said her parents send her to school in the mornings feeling confident that she will stay safe.
“I feel like, if we get it, then we’re going to get it,” Klecan said. “I’d rather live this year of my life and not have to stay inside.”
CORRECTION: This article previously stated that the Lab School has run its nature preschool for over a decade. The program is currently in its fourth year.