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A California collective makes the case for outdoor schooling

As school districts across the country are trying to determine how or if they can open their doors in the fall, a California coalition has come together - offering districts everything from curriculum to architecture advice to take their classrooms outside. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There are still many questions over if, and how school districts across the country might be able to welcome students back to classrooms this fall. Many are contemplating teaching remotely. At the same time, the American Academy of Pediatrics "strongly advocates" for the "goal of having students physically present in school."

    One coalition in California believes they can offer a solution. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

  • Christopher Booker:

    As every parent in America knows, there are no easy answers when it comes to whether their children can or should return to school in just a few weeks. But even if schools are allowed to open, there are estimates that the majority of America's schools will only be able to fit 60% of their enrolled students in their usual classrooms under the required social distancing measures.

    But Craig Strang thinks schools are approaching reopening in the wrong way.

  • Craig Strang:

    We're asking schools to consider space as something that they actually have infinite access to if they just walk out their door.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Associate Director for Learning and Teaching at UC Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science, Craig Strang is part of a team that helps shape the science curriculum used by an estimated one in four American students.

    But since March, Strang has been working to convince school districts from California to Maine to take their classrooms outside.

  • Craig Strang:

    Getting kids outdoors, not for 10 minutes, not for a half an hour, but four whole school days whenever possible, really needs to be taken into consideration.

  • Christopher Booker:

    As a co-founder of the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, the all-volunteer effort of hundreds of education experts, Strang has been working to develop a guiding framework for how schools and districts can reopen in-person classes safely using outdoor spaces.

  • Craig Strang:

    It's not a new idea. It's not a new solution. It's really a different way of thinking by current school leaders.

  • Christopher Booker:

    It's not a new idea. At the beginning of the 20th century, schools across the country were held outside to protect students against tuberculosis and then later, the Spanish flu. Classes were held on rooftops, on front porches and even ferry boats—throughout the entire year.

  • Sharon Danks:

    Schools have a lot of potential to use their grounds that they're not tapping.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Sharon Danks is the co-founder of the initiative. Trained in environmental city planning and landscape architecture, Danks has spent the past two decades running Green Schoolyards America, an organization that works with schools to transform their grounds into green spaces.

  • Sharon Danks, Green Schoolyards America:

    So in this case, in the COVID context, we think they have plenty of space outside that can augment the inside space when they're looking to spread kids out for social distancing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The initiative is divided into 11 working groups. Consisting of educators, epidemiologists, landscape architects, city planners, the group is offering districts a "how-to manual" free of charge on everything from curriculum development to infrastructure planning.

  • Sharon Danks:

    It should be the first option. And it is super simple. You can bring your existing furniture outside tomorrow. You can buy picnic tables and they'll be here next week. And the goal is to be able to help a school district that says, great, let's do this.

    And then they say, how do we do this? And so we have it'll be the 'how-to' manual online. And it does have individual piece modules in it that will help with thinking about different ways to sit outside and be comfortable in different climates, cost estimates, helping them think through where they're going to store supplies outside, how the logistics of the– of the infrastructure. And also some of the modeling of the staffing that's that would go with it.

  • Chris Booker:

    How do you answer the question about weather? Obviously it rains, it gets hot, it snows. Depending on where you are in the country, the weather is very different.

  • Sharon Danks:

    Definitely. And I think it's possible in every climate to do the work that we're suggesting. We have great examples from Canada and from northern Scandinavia where they can go outside in the winter. And actually in Chicago in the pandemic in 1918, tuberculosis and the Spanish flu pandemic, they did go outside even there all winter in some schools.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In addition to outdoor plans and designs, the initiative encourages districts to couple their outdoor classes with a curriculum that boosts students' environmental literacy, an effort that Craig Strang says could be bolstered by the consortium of outdoor educators currently idled due to the pandemic.

  • Craig Strang:

    So these outdoor science and environmental educators work in organizations like nature centers and residential outdoor schools where school groups go for a whole week of very intensive, immersive natural history in nature-based science education and they're really expert at connecting children with nature.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In April, the Lawrence Hall of Science conducted a survey of nearly one-thousand outdoor organizations across the country.

  • Craig Strang:

    The thousand organizations that responded to our survey estimated that they were going to lay off or furlough over 30,000 employees. And these are passionate, trained up skilled outdoor educators who could immediately be redeployed to work with small groups of students in socially distance safe contexts, in face-to-face learning experiences, really high-quality learning experiences outdoors.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What's preventing this group from being deployed?

  • Craig Strang:

    I think that federal support in the form of relief funds, specifically targeting the outdoor science and environmental ed community with encouragements and incentives to partner with school districts would make a huge difference. The same thing could be happening at the state level within state departments of education, and it would certainly help if the U.S. Department of Education made a statement that utilizing outdoor spaces is the key to getting our kids back to school.

  • Chris Booker:

    Obviously, districts are not built identically. And districts are not funded identically. Where and how does an inequity play into this conversation and this effort?

  • Craig Strang:

    This idea of taking kids outdoors in every school is an opportunity to start chipping away at some of those historical inequities. There are local parks within 10 minutes, 15 minutes walk of many city schools and many city school yards can be very easily and inexpensively greened with a very small amount of infrastructure support.

  • Sharon Danks:

    We need to consider all options. And this one is a time tested option. We know it works. The barrier is not the difficulty of setup. It's adults just thinking slightly differently and more creatively about what it is we want for our kids. What kind of environment do we want them to come back to? We know that everybody has had huge amounts of stress, both parents and kids in this time. And we think that the outdoor environment is the best place to bring kids back because it does have a therapeutic, calming, stress-reducing benefit.

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