Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Outdoor Spaces as Essential Assets for Schools' COVID-19 Response

Since the last week in February, when I was in New York for my Handwork teacher training (and unaware that I was in a hot spot), I've been spending several hours every day reading the news from across the U.S. and around the world about the spread of, and the response to, the novel coronavirus.

Our homeschool co-op meets at my house, and I tutor children as well, and of course I cancelled all of that back in March. In August it will be time to make decisions about meeting in person in the Fall.

Illinois is currently scheduled to move to Phase 4 on Friday. Other states have paused, or are moving backwards and re-introducing restrictions.

The situation is changing so rapidly! There also isn't any specific guidance about homeschool co-ops, so I have to read and consider everything that seems related: guidance for schools, guidance for in-home day cares, guidance for domestic workers such as babysitters and housecleaners.

And I'm carefully watching what happens in other countries that try to open up schools.

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The most helpful online workshop I've attended recently was arguing for reducing class sizes by having half of the students taught outside, specifically with an environmental education teacher. There are many talented educators who are used to teaching outdoors, have lesson ideas and materials ready to go, and may be underutilized if parks, museums, and other programs are shut down or on hold. I think it's a brilliant idea!

If schools don't have enough space on campus to teach outside, they were suggesting that classes meet at local parks.

This idea combines the proven health effects of being outside (and kids as well as adults will need to recover from the trauma of these world events) with the need for social distancing and students being able to breathe healthy air.

Here is the policy brief from The Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley:

A Field at Risk: The Impact of COVID-19 on Environmental and Outdoor Science Education (PDF)

Here is the proposal from Green Schoolyards America:

Outdoor Spaces are Essential Assets for School Districts' COVID-19 Response Across the USA: A Proposal to Engage School Grounds and Parks as Strategic, Cost-Effective Tools for Improving Academic, Mental, and Physical Wellbeing as Schools Reopen (PDF)

These two organizations, and others, are working together on this initiative.

The online workshop included breakout sessions and brainstorming and discussions around the following areas:

    Plans to Ensure Equity

    Outdoor Infrastructure

    Park / School Collaboration

    Staffing and Instructional Models

    School Program Integration

    Health and Safety Considerations

    Local and State Policy Shifts

    Funding and Economic Models

To learn more or to join a working group, visit the COVID-19 Outdoor Learning page at greenschoolyards.org. There you can watch the recording of the webinar and also download the slides.

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I have some strong thoughts about this unusual worldwide situation and what can come of it, especially the effect on education in the United States.

I believe this is an opportunity for a lot of good things to happen in public education, especially if they are given another year's exemption from standardized testing.

Hopefully the need to have instruction be increasingly efficient will result in something like the Waldorf approach, with interdisiplinary topics of study. Weaving math, language arts, science, and history/geography together just makes sense! It saves a huge amount of time, plus kids make better and longer-lasting connections.

Alternatively, since schools may open and then close and then open again and then close, and children who get sick or can't do online learning will fall behind their classmates, the idea that everyone should be doing the same thing at the same time will go out the window. Maybe more self-directed learning can happen, with students choosing their own projects to work on independently. Maybe grading will cease, as it did in the Spring, because you can't compare kids to one another.

Personally, I'd also like to see some movement around having much more and much longer recess time (although something I saw from one public school was talking about having one ball per child and they distance and play alone with it... which I think is terrible). Any reason why half of the kids can't be outside for RECESS for half the day and then they switch?

We talk so much about obesity rates and lack of exercise. Let them run around!

Plus all of the research around play shows that it ties right in with the 4 C's of 21st Century Education (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity). I think there are good arguments to be made that we will do the most to help kids prepare for a job future we can't envision by letting them PLAY more. If machines are going to take the jobs that machines can do, we need to help kids develop their humanness as much as possible.

Hopefully the need to have lessons take place outside will get kids off of computers. Right now there's an enormous amount of screen time in school!

And this is a time to take seriously schools having outdoor gardens as educational learning spaces.

Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea

by Alice Waters

This is absolutely a chance to rethink a lot of "givens." What if schools met Spring/Summer/Autumn and then took their long break in the Winter, when it's harder to be outdoors for long stretches of time? One of the issues that came up in the Equity discussion was that not all children have warm outdoor clothing! If Winter is when both flu and coronavirus are spreading, we don't really want to have people gather together at that time anyway.

And one of the main arguments against kids working in food gardens as a school project is that they aren't actually THERE when it is time to tend, harvest, and cook with the produce, so a great number of the learning opportunities are lost. So let's do it! Why not shift the school year to months that lend themselves to having as much outdoor learning as possible?

I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts, if these are things that have been buzzing around in your head as well!

UPDATE: Between Halloween 2019 and President's Day 2020 was 109 days. Between Memorial Day 2020 and Labor Day 2020 is 105 days.

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1 comment:

Shelby said...

I LOVE the idea of taking winter off instead. That makes so much sense.