Guest Columns

For Schools Struggling to Offer In-Person Classes, the Answer Lies Outdoors

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By Michael Peppard

“Can we please have class outside today?”

Remember that timeless question? Students gazed out the window, longing for fresh air and bodily movement.

But kids knew the answer before they even asked. No, we have to use the board. We need too many materials. Looks like rain.

But once the ground thaws this year, we should respond with an emphatic Yes. School should be outside, five days a week, for as many classes as we can, for as long as we can. Instead of worrying about how to get kids back in school, let’s bring school outside to the kids.

Do it for public health. Do it for the economy. But most of all, do it for them.

The public health rationale for outdoor school is obvious. Evidence shows a vast difference in rate of transmission for the coronavirus when comparing indoor and outdoor environments. One Japanese study estimated the risk of transmission to be 18 times higher indoors. A large database of cases from China found a similar ratio.

And our county and local health officials have confirmed that transmission is happening primarily in private indoor gatherings. Add in the increased vaccination rates for teachers this month, and we can have five days per week of school starting in April.

The economic effects of the pandemic have already been overwhelming. Previously flourishing industries that rely on social gathering have been reduced to rubbles of debt. Crucial to any substantial economic recovery is the return of a full, predictable school week. We parents cannot plan our work around a partial school schedule, especially if we have multiple kids on different schedules. Let’s also not forget that many teachers are themselves parents of school-age children and can’t do their jobs well under current conditions.

The toll on mental health for parents and children is impossible to quantify. Thrust into a crisis, parents rose to the challenge of being full-time teachers, alongside our regular roles as employees or employers. We set up workspaces for our kids and ourselves in closets, garages, even bathrooms. We taught long division or Civil War history amid conference calls and emergency loan applications and infinite interruptions from children being children. But we could not convert our sprint into a marathon. Parents have reached a logistical and emotional breaking point.

Kids need a predictable return to school even more than parents do. Many have become sullen and detached, barely getting out of bed. Tweens and teens need their friend groups for healthy psychological development. Younger children need socialization and play with peers to learn basic life skills. Some of the youngest ones literally can’t remember their lives from before they wore masks.

Kids’ emergency room visits related to mental health are up 25 to 30 percent compared to before the pandemic.

Teachers and administrators know all this, which is why they are working so hard to reopen more days per week. But the simplest solution for reopening school seems not to be getting enough consideration: don’t focus just on the school building, but the property around the building.

Instead of spending on plexiglass dividers and cleaning supplies, communities could be buying tents for rain and shade. Instead of figuring out how to space desks six feet apart, schools could be buying clipboards and small whiteboards in bulk. Teachers who rely on technology to teach lessons can harness the power of the devices that students often carry with them; and for schools that have gone to one-to-one technology, this plan becomes even easier.

Better yet, drop the tech altogether and start the kids’ necessary detox. Picture circles of students with whiteboards, clipboards, books and tactile learning aids. The morning could be dedicated to languages, math and social studies. Afternoon could be more active, with math and science experiments, music or drama. Programs such as Out Teach and Timbernook have hundreds of ideas at the ready.

What about weather? Outdoor school in April will require pavilion tents and flexibility, but no more flexibility than we’ve already been managing. May, June, September and October are the best months of the year for weather. And the tents are a bargain compared to the collective cost of sitters, lost wages and economic depression. What parent would not donate the equivalent of one day’s payment to a sitter instead toward a pavilion tent fund that would allow 50 more days of in-person school? Towns and villages can re-use their school tents for summer day camps, too.

To be sure, there would be challenges of logistics and pedagogy. But consider those it would eliminate: sanitizing every classroom every day, kids moving through hallways while maintaining social distance, glitchy internet, endless screen time. A few essential indoor spaces could be retained, such as science labs and special education clusters.

Even if only partially possible, the outdoors should be a foundation of any reopening plan. Working together, our communities can do this. Our kids need us to.

“So can we pretty please have class outside today?” The timeless question has never been more timely. This time, the kids are right.

Michael Peppard is a professor at Fordham University, a former high school teacher and a candidate running unopposed for village trustee in Pleasantville later this month.

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