Students at an elementary school in Gatineau are spending part of their day learning outdoors while sitting on logs and working on clipboards underneath white party tents. And when students return to a west-end Toronto school next week, they will also sit on tree stumps and milk crates and be shaded by pop-up canopy tents.
As schools across Canada reopen, a smattering of principals, teachers and parents are moving learning outdoors amid worries about coronavirus outbreaks in crowded, poorly ventilated classrooms that don’t allow for physical distancing.
Recent reports from Harvard University and a group of Ontario hospitals have recommended moving classes outside when possible because the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is much lower there. The idea itself is not new: Open-air schoolrooms were built to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in some North American cities in the early 20th century.
However, provincial governments and school boards have not mandated outdoor learning, though some are encouraging teachers to take their students outside when practical.
In order to create a destination for teachers and shield students from the elements, David McFall, principal of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School in Gatineau, used more than $3,000 of his own money in the summer to order three large wedding-style tents that have been secured with concrete blocks.
”It’s one thing to say ‘Go underneath the tree and do your English-language arts outside,’” he said. “It’s another thing to have a tent, to have a place where they can go.” Mr. McFall, who has since been reimbursed, hopes to keep the makeshift classrooms until the end of November.
”It’s a big shift in thinking and a big cultural shift to even entertain the idea of moving outdoors,” he said. “There are so many benefits and one is obviously to reduce the potential to be exposed to any virus.”
Toronto parent Chernell Bartholomew, who offered to help her daughter’s principal find supplies for outdoor learning but has not heard back, said that while fresh-air teaching is not practical during the winter, it would be beneficial even just for half-days in the fall.
“If there was ever a time to try it, I think the time would be now to just ensure a little more safety,” said Ms. Bartholomew, a personal health coach whose elder daughter is entering Grade 2 in Scarborough in Toronto’s east side.
“It’s a way that we can reduce the risk for having to start school and shut it back down in two weeks and then we’re back at square one,” she said.
In early August, after realizing that school board and politicians weren’t moving classes outdoors, S. Bear Bergman mobilized a group of parents at The Grove Community School, a Toronto public alternative elementary school that focuses on the environment and social justice.
“The key to moving forward in terms of the economy, in terms of education, is figuring out how to get the most of what we want and the least of what we don’t. An outdoor education solves that problem,” said Mr. Bergman, a writer who has two children at the school. “I don’t know why this did not happen so much sooner and why it wasn’t centrally co-ordinated.”
Led by a parent who is an architect, the group mapped out 15 outdoor classrooms in the schoolyard, which The Grove shares with Alexander Muir/Gladstone Avenue Junior and Senior Public School. They hope to have a spot outdoors for every class in both schools when students return next week and are discussing using a nearby city park if needed.
Parents are using proceeds from previous fundraisers to buy pop-up canopy tents that volunteers will set up each morning and take down at the end of the day. Students will sit on donated chairs, tree stumps and milk crates and work on clipboards and lap desks. Organizers are also hoping to set up a bank of winter clothing but Mr. Bergman says he believes a second wave of COVID-19 will eventually force everyone to go back to online learning.
The group has gotten support from the school’s principal and some teachers but not all educators have embraced their plans for outdoor classrooms, Mr. Bergman said.
“When teachers are able to see them in person, and how appealing and functional they are, then they will want to use them,” he said. “There’s some teachers who are already 100-per-cent like, ‘I’m going to be outside all the time. That’s it, that’s what we want.’ And there’s some teachers who I think are trying still to imagine how they might be able to do school in an outdoor setting.”
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) encourages outdoor education but decisions on what form it takes are made at the school level, said spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz, adding that outdoor classrooms are not a “permanent solution” because of poor weather conditions.
The TDSB has said parents cannot raise money for tents or air filters because of a policy banning fundraising for anything the government would typically cover. Ms. Schwartz-Maltz said additional fundraising guidelines will be provided soon.
David Hawker-Budlovsky, a TDSB principal who oversees outdoor education, said the board is creating resources to help teachers take students outside, which, in addition to helping prevent the spread of COVID-19, also supports their physical and emotional well-being.
“I think it’s completely unrealistic to expect every class in every school to be outside all day every day,” he said. “I think it’s completely reasonable to expect that students in each and every class do have outside time every day and not just within recesses.”
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