As schools in Maine make plans for how to safely return students to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic, some are thinking outside the box — literally.
A number of principals and superintendents are devising ways to move learning outdoors, even as the weather turns much colder. Some educators say the pandemic has spurred them to make changes that they have wanted to try for some time.
The elementary school in West Paris is in a 125-year-old yellow gabled building that looks like a big house, with a spacious, sunny backyard to match.
Principal Beth Clarke walks toward a schoolyard orchard planted by students. Just past the peach, apple and pear trees, she steps into some woods, which she envisions as a perfect spot for outdoor learning.
"The idea is that we will set up two classrooms,” says Clarke. “One down low in a clearing, and then one a little bit higher. We have a family that's donating 60 beautiful oak stumps to act as seats."
Clarke says that, for a few years now, she has wanted to move more learning outdoors for the 140 or so students who attend the pre-K through grade six school. The coronavirus pandemic has given her the nudge to move forward.
"Which I'm not sure would have happened if it hadn't been for where we're at right now, as a town, a community, a district and a country, for sure," she says.
The hope is that spending more time outside will minimize the spread of COVID-19. A recent study found that the risk of transmission outside is 20 times lower than inside. Clarke says the fresh air and distancing will also provide much-needed mask breaks for teachers and students.
Exactly how these outside classes will actually work will depend largely on the teachers who lead them.
Seal Rossignol is committed to helping teachers cross over the four-walled divide.
"There's the idea that anything you can teach inside, you can probably teach outside. And if you can teach outside, go ahead and do that."
Rossignol is the education and programming coordinator at the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy, just down the road in Norway. Rossignol says that it is ok to start simple, even by just bringing kids outside for independent reading.
"I think this could be a model for so many other schools across the state. It's really exciting."
Other schools are pursuing this idea, even in just the past few weeks.
"It has really just exploded." says Nathan Broaddus, coordinator of the Nature Based Education Consortium. The group recently hosted a webinar on outdoor learning that drew more than 200 participants.
But Broaddus says the idea is not new. In the early 1900s, a school in Rhode Island was the first in the country to adopt what would soon become an 'open air' movement, sparked by a major public health threat at the time, tuberculosis. But Broaddus says the benefits of taking students outside extend beyond physical health.
"We know that learning outside has really profound impacts on youth and youth wellbeing,” says Broaddus. “And if there's ever a time when youth could benefit from the social and emotional benefits of being outside when that would have a really meaningful impact, this really seems like a necessity today."
Portland Public Schools considers it a necessity. Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend says work is underway to establish at least two outdoor classrooms at each of the district's schools. They will be simple spaces, and the department is enlisting the help of volunteers from the Portland Society for Architecture.
"And they've been doing site walk-throughs to do what they've termed kind of 'quick and dirty' interventions to create some of these outdoor spaces,” Townsend says. “So that could look like bringing hay bales for seating or cut up logs, things like that."
Townsend says increasing opportunities to be outside in the first couple of months of the school year will be critical to help mitigate risk. But the new spaces will be used, in some way, all year-round.
A couple hundred miles to the north, Katahdin Elementary School principal Marie Robinson says she also envisions students learning outside in all seasons.
"The one thing that I remind teachers is, we have the building, and it's not like you can't come in and warm up."
Robinson says she plans to set up white boards in the school's outdoor pavilion. But the focus of outdoor learning will be more exploratory. Things like finding shapes in nature, observing and writing about seasonal changes, and using natural objects to count and measure in math. It's an approach that she wants to put into place for the long term.
"This pandemic, as horrible as it is in a lot of cases, I'm also looking at it as an opportunity to enhance our outdoor experiences for kids," Robinson says.
And in the near-term, principal Beth Clarke at the elementary school in West Paris says making plans for outdoor learning has brought a much-needed bright spot amid the stress of reconfiguring classrooms and working out transportation logistics so that kids can return to school.
"It doesn't bring you a whole lot of joy,” Clarke says. “So thinking about what we're planning for outside, it's just something to hold onto that you know is going to bring smiles to our kids faces and you know our teachers are going to appreciate."
The Maine Department of Education says it is supportive of efforts to expand outdoor learning. It has received a federal grant that can likely be used to fund pilots that may one day become models for schools state-wide. And Nathan Broaddus of the Nature Based Education Consortium says there are plenty of organizations with decades of experience ready and eager to help teachers and districts move learning outdoors.
You can find out more about how public schools in Maine are preparing to reopen this fall at mainepublic.org/coronavirus.