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Under A Tent Or The Open Sky, Schools Move Class Outside During Pandemic

The children of the Forsyth School haven’t run off and joined the circus. There’s actual learning going on under the tents pitched outside the private school on St. Louis’ border with Clayton.

With confined indoor spaces being increasingly seen as harbingers of coronavirus spread, some schools in the St. Louis area that have reopened are trying to make use of whatever grass and outdoor space they have.

Good air circulation has been shown to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Doctors and public health experts are encouraging the use of outside spaces as much as possible when kids return to school. For many schools, that means at least having recess and physical education class outdoors. But some are trying to move the whole school day to open air.

A row of large white tents is set up on a patch of grass Forsyth Head of School Dan Hildebrand calls “the big backyard.”

“So rather than just a great big field that kids play on, that’s where the academics are going on,” he said.

Students in grades first through sixth are at school for half-days this fall to keep crowding down. Nearly all instruction and activities are happening outside under the tents, with kids only going inside to use the bathroom.

Younger students are spread out on blankets while older ones use folding chairs and other furniture. If there’s light rain, like this past Tuesday, “we just stay in the tents and keep on learning,” Hildebrand said.

In the Normandy school district, teacher Emilia Belciak has been trying to expand the school garden and outdoor classroom space at Jefferson Elementary School for almost five years. The effort kicked into overdrive this summer.

The outdoor lab has a vegetable garden, native plants and a prairie. And soon it’ll have seating for 100.

Normandy is bringing students up to fourth grade back for in-person learning starting Tuesday. Jefferson Elementary will have space for four classes to be outside at once. It’ll be low-tech compared to the distance learning of their older peers. Students will sit on wooden benches and use clipboards to keep up with lessons scrawled by teachers on portable chalkboards.

“Teachers can pretty much move their class outdoors for regular activities in addition to the unique ones, for example, the invasive species identification activities that were created in the outdoor lab,” Belciak said.

Belciak teaches fifth grade, which will be done remotely, so she’ll have to watch her colleagues and their students get full use of the expanded outdoor space, but she said she’ll “definitely be incorporating it in my online lessons.”

Gateway Greening's Jackson Hambrick works on building benches for schools to use in outdoor classrooms. Public health experts say schooling should be conducted outside as much as possible to limit virus spread.
Ryan Delaney
Gateway Greening's Jackson Hambrick works on building benches for schools to use in outdoor classrooms. Public health experts say schooling should be conducted outside as much as possible to limit virus spread.

Jackson Hambrick estimates he’s gone through close to 3,000 screws making all the benches for Jefferson Elementary. Hambrick works for Gateway Greening, a nonprofit organization that supports community and school gardens throughout the St. Louis area. It’s supplying the equipment to the school free of charge.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Hambrick is doing most of the work himself, instead of with a team of volunteers at the workspace next to the organization’s demonstration garden in Grand Center.

Gateway Greening is focusing on Jefferson Elementary but will expand to other schools and districts if they move to reopen schools.

“We're going to keep making them,” Hambrick said of the benches and chalkboards. “As many as we make, they'll probably be going somewhere this year.”

Gateway Greenings is building benches and other equipment for use in outdoor classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ryan Delaney
Gateway Greening's Jackson Hambrick estimates he's already used about 3,000 screws building benches and other equipment for outdoor classrooms to be used during the pandemic. "As many as we make, they'll probably be going somewhere this year," he said.

Other schools that have opened for younger children — including Holy Cross Academy in Shrewsbury, Jennings School Districts and St. Michael School of Clayton — are cycling kids outside more often for activities including music class, physical education and yoga.

Both Belciak and Hildebrand speak of the benefits of being outside and incorporating nature into learning for students.

“They become more observant about the natural environment,” Hildebrand said. “And, you know, those are all things that are important, lifelong lessons that they need to have.”

Not all schools have the green space to make outside learning possible for large numbers of students. Many schools in the city are ringed only by a parking lot. Public health experts say that kids should still try to get outside as much as possible and that windows should be left open to improve airflow.

While St. Louis has fairly mild winters, conducting class outside won’t be practical year-round.

Hildebrand is hoping the spread of the virus subsides enough that he can bring students back for full days and even be inside by late October, but he has no set plans. If there’s still the need to be outside, kids will learn with their coats on.

Forsyth School, a private school on the western edge of St. Louis, erected several tents in its courtyard and is doing almost all instruction for students in grades first through sixth outside.
Ryan Delaney
Judy Taylor, a first-grade teacher at the Forsyth School, uses a face shield while reading to students in an outdoor classroom.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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