Over the past few weeks, social media feeds have been awash with back-to-school photos. Children dressed in outfits thoughtfully chosen the night before hold homemade signs naming their new grade levels. There is palpable excitement in the faces of these hopeful and expectant students. They appear thrilled to be headed back to school–in person–after nearly two years of online learning and social isolation.
But this fall, the push to return to full-time, in-person learning coincides with the surge of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. According to the CDC, the Delta variant of COVID-19 is more than two times as contagious as previous variants. It causes faster infection and more severe illness in unvaccinated people. As a result, the number of COVID-19 cases across the country in recent weeks has sky-rocketed, causing many health officials to enact mask mandates, even for the vaccinated.
These facts have left parents of returning students with a full-blown case of their own back-to-school jitters. Take, for example, the captions included under some of the bright and sunny back-to-school photos:
“A sophomore and a seventh-grader, BACK IN THE BUILDING!”
“Kindergarten! ALL DAY! Am I dreaming? Seems too good to be true.”
“Back-to-School 2021! Somehow I feel I’m sending them into a real-world game called ‘SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST.’”
“First day back to school for my third grader! And first day back to school for me, as a paraprofessional. I took extra time off last year for my husband’s health issues. I am excited to be back, but at the same time nervous.” #MaskUp
These worries are not unfounded. There remains no vaccine approved for children under 12, and thus, children are now more vulnerable in light of the higher transmissibility rates of the Delta variant. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that pediatric cases of COVID-19 have increased exponentially, with over a four-fold increase in August 2021, rising from approximately 38,000 cases in the week ending July 22nd, 2021 to 180,000 cases in the week ending August 19th, 2021. While it is important to note that severe illness and death due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children, pediatricians are now much more concerned about infection rates among children.
Health fears aside, parents are also brimming with more questions than ever, such as: Will schools actually remain in-person? If a student tests positive for COVID-19, who will have to quarantine and for how long? If my child is exposed, should we seek out COVID-19 testing? Should we look for backup sources of child care? Are schools prepared to switch to online school quickly and seamlessly? Are all of the teachers required to be vaccinated?
Yet despite the collective fears and questions, a consensus exists among parents, students, and educators alike that the need for children to return to school is urgent. Keeping kids out of school conveys many risks. Social isolation, heightened anxiety and depression, lack of engagement, and screen fatigue are all real concerns. Studies have shown that students in remote-learning situations suffered learning loss, especially those children who were already struggling academically. Schools further function as a safe place for many children, offering reliable, free meals and a respite from abuse that might be suffered in the home.
Schools must open. Students must return to in-person learning. How does this happen given the fear, worry, and very real risks surrounding the surge of the Delta variant? In short, the focus must shift to re-envisioning what in-person learning looks like. This is where outdoor learning can and should come into play.
The benefits of outdoor schooling and increased time in nature for students are well understood. These include improved physiological, mental and social-emotional outcomes. Children who spend more time outdoors while at school participate in increased amounts of physical activity and benefit from improved immune function. Being outdoors also benefits mental health, which, as was previously mentioned, took a hit among students during the pandemic due to increased isolation, trauma, and stress. Outdoor learning can enhance mental health by building confidence, resilience, connection, and engagement.
According to the CDC, the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in outdoor settings is minimal. Outdoor environments convey greater ventilation, airflow, and air volume than indoor spaces. School grounds provide more physical space for social distancing. Additionally, direct sunlight and humidity reduce virus survival on outdoor surfaces. Repurposing outdoor school spaces is a cost-effective way to minimize health risks and increase benefits associated with access to nature. In short, outdoor learning is one of our best tactical hopes for helping schools open and stay open as the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to surge.
Fortunately, many resources exist to help schools shift to greater use of outdoor classrooms. The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative is a collaboration that launched in May 2020, spearheaded by Green Schoolyards America. Its purpose is to help schools reopen safely and equitably by using outdoor spaces for learning and play. The initiative facilitates the National Outdoor Learning Library—a comprehensive, free, online collection of practical tools and resources for outdoor learning. The online library was written by hundreds of subject matter experts to create resources for educators as they seek to safely educate students through outdoor learning. These resources include a campus assessment tool and a cost estimator to help schools get started on their outdoor education journey, informational webinars, case studies, and curriculum support for teachers. Strategies for successful learning in all types of weather, including how to manage hot and cold temperatures are also addressed. Further, the learning library provides a wealth of helpful information for those schools that might benefit from partnerships with parks or nearby green space due to a lack of existing outdoor space.
Please visit the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative website for more information.
Happy Outdoor Learning!
Written by Sarah Goldstein
Sarah is a mom of two teens and has a B.S. in Biology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies, Concentration in Plant Ecology. After working for eight years as a climate change science consultant, she now works as a science enrichment teacher in various preschools throughout Northern Virginia.