Another Option for Education during the COVID Pandemic:  Thinking outside the (school) box

As the parent of two middle school students in the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Boulder County, Colorado, I have more than just passing interest in the debates, discussions and news about how or if kids can go back to school this fall.   It’s a big deal.

The options in every discussion and website I’ve seen so far seem limited to the following:  1) “Go back to school as normal” option – school starts up with normal, pre-COVID, schedules and classes;  2) “On-line option” – all schooling is done on line as was the case in Spring, 2020; and 3) a “hybrid on-line/ in-school option” in which teachers would, for example, meet with ½ of their classes in person and ½ on-line on any given day.  There are shortfalls and even significant dangers/challenges in all of these options that demand that we strive to do better.  And I agree with Brown University economist, Emily Oster, who during a public radio interview observed “I think we are not treating this [education during COVID] with the level of emergencyness that it actually is for society.”

Because this is an emergency, I’m weighing in with another option I believe is superior to all three ideas outlined above:  let’s think and learn outside the box of the school building.  Let’s use every outdoor setting and opportunity we have to its fullest potential – both because of the relative safety that the outdoors offers and because of the holistic, interdisciplinary education outdoor settings offer.

What are the outdoor spaces available to us?  Here are some of them:

  • Existing seating areas, grassy hills, amphitheaters and others on school properties. In situations where these could be improved immediately by use of stadium chairs, other seating and other educational aids, let’s get those in place.
  • Large tents set up on playgrounds or other open areas in which entire classes (perhaps more) could meet for extended periods. This is an expense.   So is everything else.
  • Large spaces in schools (such as gyms, multipurpose rooms and cafeteria and libraries) that are much safer spaces than classrooms because they are larger, often more easily ventilated and sometimes offer direct access to the outdoors. Let’s add more ventilation in some cases.
  • Regular incorporation of local, walking field trips (short to long), sometimes in combination with suitable areas in the community to sit and learn more formally and be sheltered when necessary. Let’s work with community partners to make this a viable option!

Significant use of outdoor spaces certainly would make in-person schooling much safer, possibly more effective and there are other advantages (that I’ll refer to in “More Info and Thoughts,” below) as well.   If more creative thought is applied to this outdoors option, I am convinced our educational system might actually be improved, not suffer.  At the very least, the outdoors option should be brought into the discussion to improve upon the options at hand

If you resonate with the idea, continue to read the “More Info and Thoughts” section (below), add your own thoughts and then advocate for the outdoors option at your school or school system.  If you are an administrator in a school system, please share this with your planning teams, teachers and others you work with.  If you are not convinced, please at least weigh it against the other options on the table.  Is it more fraught with problems than other options?   If not, might it be used in combination with any of the other options to arrive at a better solution?  Let’s give this outdoors option a chance – preferably at a scale that it can yield best results; or, at least at a level that makes our kids safer.

More Info and Thoughts

For the “outdoors option” work well this fall, I suggest that it be part of a system – along the lines of the prevailing hybrid option, but more holistic.  This system would include at least the following:

  1. The immediate use of outdoor and large space – beyond the fact that outdoor spaces are safer spaces during the COVID emergency, the outdoors (appropriately sheltered in some cases, but often “out and about”) is simply a great learning environment on its own accord. See these websites:
  1. On-line schooling From the experience of my own children (in middle school) and conversations with many parents, it seems clear to me that on-line schooling has its limits, especially when it is the only tool being used. However, if it was only two times per week and much of it was related to the in-person, outdoor lessons and experiences, it could be much more effective.  A feasible schedule might be Monday, Wednesday and Friday at school and Tuesday and Thursday on-line.
  2. A significant enlistment of community resources for good learning spaces, but much moreThe pandemic is a societal crisis that requires an “all hands on deck” approach not too unlike a wartime response.   There are many in our communities who can and will rise to the occasion as volunteers for class management, mentorship, to provide and improve outdoor spaces in the community and many other roles that will help make an outdoor-centric education approach work.  There are also businesses that will help with other aspects of an outdoor-centric approach, in such ways as providing outdoor lessons to the provision of materials from knapsacks to tents and others.
  3. An inspirational message –  In wartime and other points in history (i.e., immediately post-wars, when countries vie to become the first at something, etc.) there is an underlying inspirational message or theme that motivates entire societies to devote themselves to learning and action.  Right now, during this COVID pandemic, our debate about education seems unmotivated and lackluster.   We are not taking advantage of two inspirational messages / themes to raise our enthusiasm for learning and which tie in the outdoors option.  One is defeating the COVID pandemic itself and the other is creating a sustainable world in the face of looming environmental challenges that will make COVID seem like child’s play if we leave them unaddressed.   These two crises are also a big opportunities if we embrace them as the “raison d’ etre” of education.  Let’s seize the challenges we face head-on.   Let’s teach our kids how Earth’s living systems work and how human systems fit in (or don’t). Let’s unleash their creative potential to create a new world.

In BVSD’s own 2015 BVSD Sustainability Management System Update we find “It shall be the policy of the Board of Education to educate students about lifestyles and technologies that limit our negative impact on the environment and use natural resources in a manner that maintains quality of life and reduces consumption to a sustainable level. In order to lead by example and to be good stewards of the public’s trust, the district will establish and operate healthful, safe and productive learning environments while practicing environmental and fiscal responsibility.” (Bolded emphasis has been added.)   Let’s use this pre-existing imperative to help create a better option for education.  Let’s think and learn outside the (school) box to make education this fall healthful, safe and productive!


Martin Ogle, 720-612-0506