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COVID-19 is pushing some schooling outdoors, but will it work for NYC?

For a preschool program along New York's Hudson River, taking kids outdoors, no matter the weather, is built into the school's model. But for an urban district like New York City, schools face a bigger set of challenges as they prepare to reopen in less than two weeks. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    COVID-19 concerns have forced schools and universities around the globe to rethink how to safely maintain social distancing and get back to the work at hand.

    Remote learning is not an option for some schools so they are thinking about in-person learning – outdoors.

    NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Come rain, snow or shine, the kids who attend the Little Leaf School, a nature preschool just north of New York City, are outside for much of the day.

  • Theresa McCaffrey:

    We serve children ages two to five. We have a small twos group which we call the Acorns. Then we have the Sugar Maples that are ages three to five. They'll have gear on if it's a rainy day. They have on rain pants, rain boots, a jacket. They're ready to play.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Theresa McCaffrey is the founder and head of Little Leaf School, which has three locations along the Hudson River and started here in Hastings-on-Hudson.

    So you actually put strings as walls for the kids?

  • Theresa McCaffrey:

    Just in the beginning of the year, so they understand the boundary. This is our sixth year.

    But in the beginning, my goal was to be outside someplace beautiful, preferably the forest, and have a group of kids with me playing. There's a whole movement now of early childhood environmental educators. I think it's a great place to work. We really have to be a team and brainstorm and make things work because every day is an adventure.

  • Christopher Booker:

    As parents consider sending their kids to classrooms, interest in outdoor programming has surged.

    We're just a few weeks away from opening. Where are you in terms of your preparation and how many students are scheduled to come?

  • Theresa McCaffrey:

    We're totally filled. The Department of Health has said we have to keep our groupings no bigger than 15.

    I've spent the summer doing Zoom calls with parents and listening to their fears and anxieties and teachers, too. I've spent time talking to teachers about their fears and anxieties and training them on the safety protocols we need to have in place.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Studies of COVID-19 transmission have shown it's much riskier to be indoors with poor air circulation, making outdoor classrooms a much safer, attractive idea this year.

    But is outdoor school only possible in rural and suburban districts?

    Earlier in the summer, New York launched its open streets program – promising to convert 100 miles of city streets to pedestrian friendly zones, areas for bicycles and outdoor dining. So far, 9,000 permits have been granted to restaurants. Proponents of outdoor schools say this could be used for the city's 1,700 schools.

  • Brad Lander:

    Schools are hungry to use outdoor space so that their students and teachers can work together in ways that are safe and enriching and healthy and in some cases even healing and inspiring. How about that?

  • Christopher Booker:

    Brad Lander is a council member in New York City.

    He said half of the schools in his Brooklyn district have requested permission to close streets next to their schools to expand outdoor space for students.

  • Brad Lander:

    The teachers we've talked to have been supportive and the principals we've talked to have been supportive as well. We're not looking to dictate what schools have to do. We're looking to offer them options of what they could do.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Taking classes outdoors is certainly not a new idea. New York City had 'open air schools' over a century ago when tuberculosis and the Spanish flu hit the city.

    Brad Lander Yes, in 1918, when the pandemic hit, there was outdoor schooling. This is something that's taking place all around the world, all around the country. We just have to make sure every school has access.

  • Christopher Booker:

    How do you apply something like this equally throughout all of New York City's 1,700 schools?

  • Brad Lander:

    Those schools that don't have a playground might be across the street from a small park like this one right here. This would be plenty of space to put up a few tents. And every school is located on a street and street space. as we've seen with our restaurants.If we can get nine thousand restaurants, permits for street space, we can give that to schools as well.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For music teacher and parent of two school-aged kids Sarah Ferholt, outdoor learning is a no-brainer.

  • Sarah Ferholt:

    I would love to teach outdoor full time. And particularly as a music teacher. Everything I do has been deemed high risk and something I'm not allowed to do in person. No singing, no holding hands, no playing the recorder. All of the things I do as a band teacher.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Do your fellow teachers share this desire to be outside or is there resistance within the teacher's group?

  • Sarah Ferholt:

    You know, everybody is different. Many, many teachers would love to teach full time outdoors. And some teachers, that's a new idea. Of course, some teachers don't want to. But I don't think this is a prescriptive.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But both the principal and teachers' unions in New York City have called for a delay in reopening. They are concerned that the school buildings' ventilation systems and COVID-19 testing plans are inadequate.

    New York City, the largest school district on track for partial in-person learning, plans to reopen schools on September 10th — less than two weeks away.

    On Monday, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that New York City schools can submit plans to have outdoor learning and the Department of Education will start approving them next week.

  • Mayor Bill De Blasio:

    The Department of Education is going to work with principals to open more space, if that's what they want in their school community. In certain cases, we close off streets for a period of time, in certain places, we can make space available in local parks.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But the head of the teacher's union said in response, "The Mayor's reopening plan continues to fall short, particularly in terms of necessary testing."

    And the principal's union called Mayor de Blasio's outdoor planning "far too late" and the guidance "short-sighted" and noted "without funding, this plan will exacerbate existing disparities."

    So far, at least 585 New York City schools — that's one third of the district's schools — have submitted proposals to go outdoors.

    For supporters of outdoor learning, approval from the city can't come soon enough.

  • Brad Lander:

    This is a good lesson for our kids in what safety looks like. How do we keep each other safe from the virus? That's the work we have to do together. That's not all solved by going outside, but it is solved by being able to be and act together in person more than online.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is there time to implement something like this?

  • Brad Lander:

    Yes, there is time. We've got to get started. This is why we're out here today.

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