Students in playground receive outdoor learning
Students of Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital enjoying outdoor education Credit: Miranda Chadwick

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At a private school on 16th Street NW, students are learning outside. A second grader calls out in Hebrew, “The king says that everyone should touch the color red.” His classmates scan the playground, their classroom for the morning, in search of anything red. A student spots the color on his classmate’s shirt. Instead of running over and touching him, the second graders point and clap in his direction.

As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, students are taught to be even more conscious of keeping their germs to themselves. And at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, Hebrew, along with the rest of the curriculum, is taught outside.

“We are repurposing all of our space and all of our people to make this work,” says Dr. Deborah Skolnick-Einhorn, the head of school.

The ga-ga pit, a pit in the shape of a hexagon where a gentler version of dodgeball is played, is now a classroom where groups of no more than eleven students learn, as is the playground and roof of the school building. The art teacher is now teaching general studies to younger elementary students. The bus driver is disinfecting doorknobs and other high-touch surfaces. And the librarian is the COVID-19 screener, taking the temperature of anyone who tries to get through the school gate.

In D.C., outdoor learning comes at a price. Annual tuition at Milton is $28,400 for pre-K ­through fifth grade and $31,200 for sixth through eighth grade. It’s a school for families of privilege. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner send their children there, according to the New York Times, although the school will not confirm the enrollment of specific students for privacy reasons. Outdoor learning, like learning pods and tutors, is yet another way inequities in education could widen during the pandemic, given how pricey and complicated it is to execute.

As public schools moved ahead with remote learning, Milton opted for what Skolnick-Einhorn calls “virtual plus.” This means students learn in-person one to two days per week, while the rest of the school week is virtual. With the exception of pre-K and kindergarten, learning occurs outside. Students go inside the school facility only to use the bathroom. The private school was unsatisfied with the three models that school districts across the country were using to respond to the coronavirus—full in-person learning, full remote learning, or a hybrid of the two—and so made the decision over the summer to incorporate outdoor learning. The school invested in outdoor hand washing stations and tents, along with voice amplifiers for teachers and yoga mats for students to enhance the experience.

“We believe that they need to be outside, happy, and joyful,” Skolnick-Einhorn says of students. “That was always our orientation. It’s just so much harder to execute.”

“The default is the kids are just sitting at home in front of their computer all day. We just weren’t satisfied with that as the default,” she continues.

More than three weeks into the academic year, there have been no COVID-19 scares. The private school’s screening process, which includes a mobile application, and communication with families via internal newsletters and Zoom calls about the communal responsibility to keep one another safe by practicing social distancing on and off campus appear to be working so far.

“Teachers feel more themselves and more at ease because they are outside,” says Skolnick-Einhorn.

A teacher named Rebecca even called the class she instructed outside during torrential rain “amazing.” A few teachers opted to teach only remotely for medical reasons, and the school provided accommodations. There were no layoffs, but the school did hire an additional nurse.

A small but loud group of educators is trying to get DC Public Schools to invest in outdoor education for the benefit of students, irrespective of the pandemic. Research suggests outdoor learning can improve academic performance and engages students with the community. The pandemic only underscores the case for outdoor learning. A study of 110 cases of the virus in Japan found that the likelihood of catching the coronavirus is nearly 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also says schooling should take place outdoors as much as possible.

“If we’re able to have restaurants right now under tents or block off streets in order to have people socially distance outside, then why not do it for a school?” says Collin Radix-Carter, a pre-K teacher at a Ward 3 public school who is a part of the teacher advocacy group EmpowerEd.

“There is precedent for this,” he says.

To respond to a tuberculosis outbreak in Rhode Island at the start of the 20th century, two doctors proposed open-air schools to mitigate transmission. It worked. The open-air school movement spread across the U.S., and by 1918, 130 cities operated some kind of outdoor learning.

“The District also needs to be in a position right now where it needs to reinvent itself for the sake of our children, because the reality is virtual learning, while it might be the safest option, it may not necessarily be the best option for all students,” Radix-Carter says. “And I think especially for early childhood students who need that socialization as part of their development teaching. Virtually, it’s not the same.”

Outdoor education appears to be a strong option if families and teachers want to return to in-person learning, but only if it can be done safely. DCPS is unable to offer outdoor learning right now, as a few local private and charter schools have, for a host of reasons. For starters, DCPS is responsible for more than 100 schools and 48,000 students. Milton, for comparison, has two campuses and roughly 475 students. Another challenge is that not every public school has an appropriate space for outdoor learning. For some schools, it is an issue of not having enough physical space. For others, it’s about not having enough spaces where educators and families feel comfortable having students.

“I’m always leary about exclusion,” says Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis. “Sometimes it’s not because we intend to. It’s because we simply don’t have a level playing field when it comes to parents and students with the same resources. So consequently, some kids are going to be left out.”

When asked about outdoor learning, Davis immediately recalled a shooting outside a Ward 8 school in May 2019. According to media reports at the time, a man was fatally shot around 12:50 p.m. on a street that lines Savoy Elementary School’s playground. The school was briefly placed on lockdown.

WTU has asked members about outdoor learning, both before and during the pandemic. In April 2017, when Davis asked teachers if they wanted to participate in National Outdoor Classroom Day, only teachers working in schools that could accommodate such learning and who were supported by parents replied. In recent weeks, teachers only responded to survey questions about outdoor learning by asking more questions: How would it work in the winter months and could it be done equitably? Davis says no one responded to the question of whether they would feel more safe teaching outside than inside the school, although about 100 teachers said they want to return to in-person learning if DCPS answers their questions.

“I like the idea,” says Davis. “This is something we need to explore further before we move forward with it.”

“Principals think, by and large, that it’s a great idea,” says Richard Jackson, the president of the Council of School Officers, which represents principals and administrators, of outdoor learning. “That conversation is a collaborative conversation and not an individual conversation. It’s a conversation around, ‘What does your outdoor look like? How are we going to handle inclement weather? What resources can come from the central office around facilities and equipment?’”

Jackson says that so far there has been no collaboration between the principals’ unions and DCPS. He learned that the mayor wanted small groups to return to in-person learning this semester from a Washington Post article. Principals are now responsible for submitting proposals to DCPS explaining what this would look like at their individual schools if they want to return to in-person learning before Nov. 6, Jackson says. “I think they are being somewhat coerced to say yes. And our concern is that if and when something goes wrong … there’ll be a convenient scapegoat for the system.”

A lack of honest communication and collaboration between school unions and officials has hampered creative solutions to reopening schools, according to the presidents of both the teachers’ and principals’ union.

In a statement to City Paper, DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee says, “DC Public Schools is committed to a safe and successful return to in-person learning for our students and staff. With safety and equitable access top of mind, we are actively considering options that would allow for students, especially those furthest from opportunity, to return in-person to receive the high-quality instruction and critical supports that prepare them for lifelong success.”

The spokesperson for the chancellor adds that some principals and educators already expressed interest in returning to small group in-person learning before Nov. 6 after DCPS requested proposals, and DCPS is working with the Department of General Services to ensure that the schools’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems are suitable for the return.

During a July 30 press conference, Ferebee said DCPS considered outdoor education, but realized it could not provide “the same experience across the District.” Nor does DCPS think a full school day can take place outdoors, Ferebee said. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn added that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education says schools should strongly consider holding classes outside if they can make it work.

In a statement to City Paper last week, Kihn remained vague about future plans. “Through a lens of equity and access, we are evaluating the feasibility of every possible option, including the logistics associated with the strategic use of outdoor space and other non-classroom spaces in our school buildings,” he says. “We anticipate being able to provide an update to District families soon.”

EmpowerEd hopes DCPS takes advantage of property under the control of the Department of Parks and Recreation to address schools’ unequal access to outdoor spaces. Schools near Oxon Run Park in Ward 8, for example, should be able to take advantage of the green space, the group insists.

“The same thing you do inside, I would put it right outside and make it beautiful and make it interesting,” says Dr. Erika Blackburn, a pre-K teacher at a Ward 2 school who is a part of EmpowerEd. “Use natural materials.”

Blackburn gets excited describing the possibility of having her classroom outdoors, thinking of an easel stand where her students would make words out of magnetic letters or a mud kitchen for them to conjure culinary creations. She’s already driven around her school’s neighborhood to look for green spaces. If Blackburn could have it her way, schools would transition from distance learning to full in-person learning, once coronavirus data says it is safe, with education taking place outside as much as possible and HVAC systems getting updated to facilitate indoor instruction.

“It just seems to me that a hybrid situation could actually be even more dangerous because we’re putting kids into more and more cohorts,” Blackburn says. “They’re going to end up being potentially at day care for two or three days.”

Some epidemiologists share her concerns. A hybrid plan introduces additional contacts besides the ones that happen in schools and homes if families need child care during remote learning. Students will inevitably be exposed to more people—say, day care staff and other children—and then return to their schools for in-person learning.

The mayor wants DCPS to give its families the option of hybrid learning when the second term begins.

Preschool students between the ages of 2 and 4 returned to in-person learning five days a week at Lowell School, a private pre-K through eighth grade school in Ward 4. The plan is to have preschool students outdoors as much as possible. Briya Public Charter School, which has campuses in Northwest and Northeast D.C., also welcomed its parents and pre-K students back for outdoor learning two days a week.

“We have always used the outdoors as a classroom,” says Iris Vargas, the interim assistant director of the pre-primary program at Lowell. “But this year, we are being a little more purposeful.”

“Knowing all the guidelines we were going to follow and that the school was putting in place, I felt comfortable [returning],” says Nuria Rodriguez, a pre-primary teacher at Lowell.

“Nature-based learning and outdoor learning has always been important to us, and we’ve always done it to the [fullest] extent possible and we really believe in it,” says Lisa Luceno, the senior director of early childhood strategy at Briya. “It has so many benefits for young children.”

The ethos of these schools meant they were better positioned to make the transition—they already had some of the equipment they needed to move classes outdoors or their curriculum could be more easily tailored. Lowell, for example, is the kind of school where teachers and assistant teachers view the outdoors as being the third teacher. If a hawk flies by and distracts students from the lesson plan, so be it. They might even incorporate the hawk into the lesson.

“Oftentimes, we think about those memories outdoors, where we went somewhere and saw something. The beach. The sky. The woods,” says Vargas. “I am very excited about this new opportunity. It forces us to think about outdoor learning.”

Lowell is also right down the street from Rock Creek Park, which educators took advantage of during its summer camp by sending students there to do yoga. Not everyone has access to such green space. According to an analysis from the Center for American Progress, low-income residents in D.C. are more likely to live in an area that is deprived of nature. The families of Lowell School students pay a large sum for education. Tuition for Lowell ranges between $19,830 for the younger students and $41,330 for the older ones.

Briya Public Charter School is an adult education school that also offers a pre-K program, so parents and their kids can learn together. They serve a number of immigrant families, some who live in crowded apartment complexes. Being back at school allows families to enjoy green spaces that many have sought out during the pandemic.

“Not all the children have their own yard or garden,” says Luceno. “We need to facilitate that, because we know that the benefits are numerous.”

“I think we’re not taking fresh air for granted anymore,” she adds.