More Maine students will be learning in the great outdoors this fall, a move many districts are making to minimize the risk of COVID-19.

School districts across the state are setting up outdoor classrooms, sending band and chorus practices outside, and encouraging students to eat lunch outside. Having students spend more time outside to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is a strategy districts are adopting in addition to plans to have students attend school part of the week and learn from home the rest of the week, wear masks and stay in small groups.

The trend reflects scientific findings that the virus spreads among people easily in indoor settings – especially poorly ventilated buildings – but doesn’t transmit as readily when people are outdoors. Advocates have been pressing for outdoor learning for decades, but the movement has accelerated with COVID-19, spurring outdoor learning plans in California, Michigan, Texas and Washington state, according to NBC News and PBS Newshour.

While the practice is currently gaining steam, school often was held outside in the early 20th century in response to other infectious disease outbreaks, such as tuberculosis.

In Portland, the school district is building at least two outdoor classrooms for all 15 schools in the district in time for the start of school Sept. 14.

“Our students spend a lot of time inside with technology and devices,” said Brooke Teller, a science teacher and outdoor learning coordinator. “It’s an opportunity to reintroduce them to the amazing spaces that exist around our buildings in Portland. Being outside should promote curiosities from students that might be different than an inside setting.”

Teller said much still has to be decided, including what will be built, at what cost and how often students will use the outdoor classrooms. Teller said she could see students spending half the day outside, and perhaps more class discussions and reading would take place outside, while lessons that require more writing would be inside. Each student will have a clipboard to write on when they are outside.

She said it’s not clear how much the outdoor classrooms will be used in winter, but she hopes they get some use even during the colder months.

This 1911 photo shows children at a fresh air class rest hour at Public School No. 51 in New York City. Poor ventilation in school buildings across the U.S. today will limit the possibility of in-person instruction resuming safely, so some districts are warming to the idea of outdoor classrooms. Library of Congress via Associated Press

Nathan Broaddus, manager of the Nature Based Education Consortium, a Maine nonprofit that advocates for outdoor learning, said there’s a lot of interest this year from schools. He’s heard of outdoor programs starting up not only in Portland, but in Falmouth, Oxford Hills, South Portland, Camden-Rockport, Blue Hill, Bowdoinham and elsewhere.

Broaddus said the outdoor classrooms can be as simple as tree stumps, wooden benches and picnic tables, or as extensive as a series of well-ventilated tents and yurts. Costs can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000 per outdoor classroom.

He said the pandemic, as terrible as it has been, has shown people the importance of the outdoors.

“Everyone across the board this year has had some experience with cabin fever,” Broaddus said. “I can’t remember a moment like this, when the experience with the outdoors being so universally important is shared among people. It’s really put a fine point on many of the benefits of being outside.”

Broaddus said with planning and effort, schools can arrange it so that students spend most of the time outdoors, even in winter.

Addy Smith-Reiman, executive director of the Portland Society for Architecture, said Portland architects are volunteering to survey all 15 Portland buildings to look at how best to design the outdoor classrooms. Some schools, such as Lyseth and East End elementary schools, already have some designed outdoor spaces, so the district is looking to expand those.

“Crisis forces innovation,” Smith-Reiman said. “This is forcing people to be more innovative about their space. Can we pitch a tent here, put some logs here, add some stones there?”

This 1900 photo shows an open air school in New York City. School districts across Maine are now setting up outdoor classrooms, sending band and chorus practices outside, and encouraging students to eat lunch outside school buildings. Library of Congress via Associated Press

The open-air school movement began in Europe in the first decade of the 20th century and spread to the U.S. in 1908, when proponents opened summer camps for tubercular children, then moved the concept into schools that eventually opened in cities across the nation. Within two years, there were 65 outdoor schools in cities around the country, The New York Times recently reported.

With schools in her district flanked by mountains, lakes and Penobscot Bay, Maria Libby had long thought about how to move more of the educational experience outdoors. The pandemic transformed those thoughts into action in the Camden-Rockport area.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the opportunity COVID provides,” said Libby, superintendent at MSAD28/Five Town Community School District. “We’re trying to capitalize on the moment.”

As part of her vision for schools reopening in the fall, Libby has ordered 12 large event tents and enough plastic chairs to seat up to 100 students in each of the district’s five schools. There are plans to add awnings at two schools and build two yurts that eventually will act as heated base camps for outdoor activities.

And to make sure elementary school students are comfortable, the district is exploring the purchase of all-weather rain suits and waterproof boots.

The tents cost roughly $1,000 each. The yurts may cost up to $40,000 to build, with platforms. Much of the money is coming from federal CARES Act funds and a grant, not the school budget.

“We’re hoping to do as much outdoors as possible,” Libby said. “It’s just a safer place to be.”

Libby has gotten some of her inspiration from Peopleplace Cooperative Preschool in Camden, which is planning to move its programming outdoors as much as possible this fall. It already has erected a yurt.

Asked about the reaction from parents and teachers, Libby expects the district to conduct more professional development around teaching outdoors. The response from parents, she said, has been largely positive. Some parents have sent her articles about outside education in other states.

“We’re already planning that,” she tells them. “There seems to be a lot of support.”

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