Op-Ed: How About Moving Some Classes to the Great Outdoors When Schools Reopen?

Lisa Wolff | June 4, 2020 | Opinion, Education
With plans still uncertain for reopening New Jersey’s schools, there’s an opportunity to be truly innovative
Lisa Wolff

As part of a multi-stage plan to reopen new Jersey for business and other activities, Gov. Phil Murphy on May 22 issued Executive Order No. 148 to allow for fewer restrictions on outdoor activities. Grounded in solid science, the order cites “that outdoor environments present reduced risks of COVID-19 transmission as compared to indoor environments.”

Yet, similar logic does not appear under consideration for educational applications.

Earlier, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said that his state needed to “reimagine education” in a post-COVID-19 reality. His statement offered a silver lining to our proverbial cloud. My anticipation soared to consider a potential pivot toward “imaginative solutions” to better meet the needs of young learners.

That excitement was short-lived, though, when Gov. Cuomo mentioned that he tapped the Gates Foundation and the chief executive of Google to create the blueprint for what essentially appears to be a technology-centered initiative.

The concept of replacing classroom teaching with computer-delivered instruction is hardly new and doesn’t strike me as particularly imaginative. There is no question that technology should be a part of a solution, and we must begin by addressing equity issues exacerbated by the digital divide. But technology on its own is no panacea.

Since New Jersey hasn’t announced plans for reopening the schools, we have an opportunity to apply truly innovative approaches to blended learning. Teachers and staff have done an excellent job of navigating the challenging circumstance and we owe it to them to be developing policy that ensures a smooth and successful reopening.

Get beyond two prevailing views

Current strategies are usually limited to two views: “How can we rely more heavily on technology so students can work in isolation from home?” And, “How can schools adjust their processes to accommodate social distancing within traditional school walls?”

In Question 11 of his 91 questions about reopening schools in the fall, esteemed Superintendent Dr. David Aderhold shares the generally accepted perception among education professionals that a “modified school day” includes a range of virtual (home) instruction with the addition of traditional (inside) classroom work that may be limited in its scheduling or class size.

While virtual and traditional methods merit investigation, apprehension surrounding both of these aspects suggests additional learning opportunities also deserve consideration.

With respect to online learning, if the technology is even available, many parents are concerned about the excessive influence of screen time on young children. Further, learning at home can inhibit socialization. With respect to learning within school buildings, navigating tight quarters and communal surfaces may expedite sharing germs.

I sincerely believe that reopening schools by simply instituting virtual instruction and scaling back our traditional teaching methods will result in a net loss to our students and community. This is especially disappointing when our circumstances provide an opportunity to implement measures to strengthen our schools.

Health benefits

Perhaps the Department of Education can enrich current proposals by including outdoor learning as part of its reopening recommendations, due not only to COVID-19 concerns but also as part of educational best practices for the future. Outdoor environments provide more engaged learning while supporting physical health and reducing risks of COVID-19 transmission as compared to indoor environments. Districts should be encouraged to utilize both outdoor classrooms and public open space locally.

Currently under the auspices of COVID-19 safety, the only recommendations encouraged to address physical health needs are increased social distancing and improved hygiene (such as disinfecting surfaces and handwashing). While those actions tremendously aid in reducing virus exposure, they offer little protection once a virus is contracted.

Outdoor exercise strengthens immune function to fight off infections and viruses. Exercise also plays a role in reducing obesity. Recent studies indicate that obesity increased the length and severity of COVID-19 symptoms.

In addition, mental health and social-emotional wellness are important to our students and the greater community. Combating mental health issues is a key educational priority. The isolation imposed by stay-at-home orders can increase anxiety, depression and domestic violence.

As evidenced by the outcry and demand to end park closures, the public has shown renewed interest in enjoying the serenity of the outdoors. A recent study shared that spending time in nature during childhood Is linked to better mental health in adulthood. Not surprisingly, previous studies by Harvard Medical School and the National Institutes of Health indicate that exposure to forest environments provides stress relief and improved mood, sleep, and ability to focus.

While we have long been aware of the downside of nature deficits, this pandemic has revived an opportunity to reverse those negative trends. Outdoor learning plays an important role in a healthy school environment.

Before the pandemic, leading schools sought to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and boost student engagement through student-centered approaches like project-based learning. For example, in my suburban central New Jersey school district, public-private partnerships have provided funding for outdoor learning areas at every public school. Additionally, a quick search at The Trust for Public Lands indicates that greater than 90% of residents in urban areas like Camden, Trenton and Newark are within a 10-minute walk of a park. Many areas also offer community gardens. Groups like United Parks as One share best practices for community park support.

An alternative classroom

These outdoor areas are obviously conducive to physical education and real-world scientific applications of research and interactions with nature. Usage can also be as simple as holding an English class or poetry reading outside to provide an attractive and inspiring alternative classroom.

Many public preserves are already being used by higher education for research studies and many school districts have already updated their curriculum with New Jersey Next Generation Science Standards lesson plans that embed outdoor learning projects to study ecosystems and habitat. The lessons are fun and engaging — a student might tag and track a butterfly on its journey to Mexico; plant flowers to understand their impact on land, air and water; or monitor the progress of trees they planted in prior years.

Finally, let’s face it: This pandemic has wreaked havoc on our state’s finances. We should be leveraging all potential means of support. In addition to school funding, taxpayer dollars help sustain our locally preserved open space and parks that are already designed to promote public access and education.

Throughout this pandemic, we are finding that the best results are obtained by using our imagination and collaborating with unlikely partners. Regarding ecological changes, let’s not return to normal when we can reflect on the lessons we’ve learned and use that as the basis of a profound force for change. When we are dealing with the well-being of our students, we owe it to their future to do it right.