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.