COVID-19 is fueling a Utah shift to outdoor classrooms

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in Riverton Elementary teacher Donna Filion's 5th grade class work on a science-based scavenger hunt in a small grove of mature trees at the school on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

Students in Dasch Houdeshel’s science class are using beakers filled with green, yellow and clear liquids to see how water is transferred in plant cells.

This could be a scene from any high school biology class. The only difference is that this science lab is entirely outdoors; the experiment is set up behind Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City.

Junior Brennan Riad isn’t being distracted by his concern about the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re not in a closed room, we’re in the outdoors, and there’s a wind going by,” he said. “So I’m not so worried about being around other people, compared to being in a classroom.”

As schools in Utah and nationwide have searched for ways to protect students and educators, some have literally looked outside the box of classrooms. Such indoor spaces, with reduced ventilation and the increased difficulty of 6-foot social distancing, have a higher risk of spreading the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns.

Research shows COVID-19 is much less likely to be spread outdoors, where the Mayo Clinic notes fresh air disperses exhaled respiratory droplets. And public and private schools are among the largest landowners in the nation, with almost every campus including at least a surrounding schoolyard.

The advantages extend so far beyond keeping kids safer, supporters and researchers say, that they expect the pandemic to drive a permanent shift toward teaching outside. A Utah professor has documented increased focus and creativity; others point to increased equity for students. One Riverton principal is seeing children, made anxious by all the changes, finding solace in their school’s sheltering grove of trees.

This summer, Judge Memorial administrators identified 20 areas on their 4.5-acre lot for teachers to hold classes outside; some spaces can be further subdivided to accommodate the private school’s entire student body. It has 525 students, and about 70 have opted to learn only online.

(Julie Hirschi | Special to The Tribune) Biology students study how water is transferred in plant cells, using green, yellow and clear liquids in an outdoor learning space at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City.

As often as possible, teacher Chris Sloan takes his English classes outside, where students read books and write in notebooks rather than looking at screens.

“You might not think your campuses could do outdoor classes. But actually, the more we started to look around, the more [opportunities] we saw,” said Sloan. “Even after this all ends, I think there’s a change to more outdoor education.”

‘Safe and comfortable’

Principal Elizabeth Julian wanted to be as inclusive as possible as her public elementary school in the rural Utah town of Boulder reopened this fall. She wanted to offer an option that “everyone felt safe with,” including students' family members who are at higher risk of complications from the virus.

“The school community impacts our entire community,” said Julian, who also teaches at Boulder Elementary. “I really believe that you have to have thriving schools in a community to have a thriving community.”

Her one-classroom schoolhouse offers a multigrade learning environment, where 29 students of different ages learn together. But the old modular building could not hold even that small student body safely.

So classes have been held outside since school resumed Aug. 19. Teachers use every bit of outdoor space, from the graveled parking lot to the concrete basketball court, and even walk students across the street to an outdoor pavilion loaned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They borrowed a large event tent from a restaurant to provide shade throughout the day, and have moved lunch tables, desks and chairs outdoors.

The extra prep time required, to set everything up outside and take it all down at the end of the day, has been a challenge. Teachers and students also have to secure loose papers and other items so they don’t blow away in the wind, and project their voices loud enough so that everyone can hear one another.

Still, Julian feels the benefits outweigh the struggles.

“Students learn and succeed when they are safe and comfortable,” she said. “You can’t have that creative exploration of content and academic achievement if the students aren’t safe and comfortable. And so it’s our responsibility as a school to create [that] environment. And we’ve been able to do that by being outside.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Boulder Elementary principal and teacher Elizabeth Julian gives an assessment to kindergarten student Wiley Williams in the school parking lot, August 27, 2020, after a windstorm blew down the school's borrowed event tent.

As the weather changes, the school’s educators still plan to do as much work outside their building as possible. At a recent community council meeting, they discussed building a greenhouse to integrate science and agriculture into the curriculum — and for students to have an outdoor living classroom, both through the pandemic and into the future.

Boosting creativity — and equity

Not only is learning outside safer during the pandemic, but spending time outdoors also is better for mental health, focus and creativity, points out David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who has conducted research into these benefits.

He helped develop a standardized creativity test to measure cognitive function, and found that outdoors “not only is creativity boosted, but we see an important part of our thinking, our working memory, is enhanced so we have greater capacity to hold and manipulate information.”

The study, which tested attention restoration theory, found that being outdoors helps restore the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that gets overworked by technology and constant multitasking.

It said cognitive functions are restored and creativity is boosted by 50% when people spend time outdoors in a natural setting without technology.

Strayer believes that teaching outside can help kids. Those whose classes are being held online are using more and more technology and getting less time outdoors.

“The average person in the U.S. spends about 10 hours a day in front of a screen,” said Strayer. “It’s crowding out time to have real interactions with people, interact in natural spaces, and so building into a curriculum time to be outside and reflect and enjoy nature is important.”

Hilary Lambert, an environmental education consultant who works with schools like Judge Memorial (where her husband is the principal) offers another draw of outdoor classes: They boost equity for less-advantaged students.

Spending time in green space is important, she said, and learning outside boosts such access, especially for kids in lower socioeconomic areas.

Research has shown that regularly spending 120 minutes outdoors “is enough time to close half of the economic gap in terms of stress reduction, in terms of academic performance,” said Lambert.

“This is really good for everybody, but extra good for people who need help getting outside,” she said. “So if we can provide that help and make it more equitable, then I think that’s a really worthwhile investment.”

She conducted some of her work for her master’s degree at an outdoor classroom at Waterford School in Sandy. Some of her research centered on the attention systems in the brain and how they are both engaged and relaxed when people are out in nature.

Lambert helps schools, such as Waterford and the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, reimagine their outdoor spaces and equip teachers to work there, suggesting solutions such as shade structures and heat lamps.

To keep students comfortable in colder weather, she envisions sponsorships such as programs that already help students access the internet and obtain books. Utah’s thriving outdoor industry, for example, could “support a grant program where you if you qualify for free and reduced lunch, you also get a pair of boots and a parka and some snow pants,” she said.

Lambert also believes an education that includes respect for the outdoors, an understanding of science and insight into how nature impacts peoples' lives will create a generation that has the skills to solve the problems of climate change.

“If everybody is connected to nature, even if it’s in a schoolyard or a raised bed schoolyard garden that’s on a blacktop, that’s still nature,” she said. “And that’s really valuable for creating that emerging stewardship ethic.”

Outdoor classrooms aren’t new; forest schools, for example, are based on the philosophy from Scandinavian countries that children need unstructured play and time outdoors, which builds confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences.

But the pandemic has spurred schools around the country — including those in cold weather environments, such as Vermont, Wisconsin and Michigan — to experiment more widely with outdoor education, said Alex Porpora, executive director of the Utah Society for Environmental Education. She connects schools with community partners, resources and experts.

“It’s one tool in the toolkit to think creatively about bringing students and teachers back,” she said, “and I think that’s a real way to reimagine education.”

‘Make education better’

That’s exactly the opportunity Shea Wilkerson, a chemistry teacher at public charter school Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE), sees in the pandemic.

“How can we use this COVID moment to figure out how to make education better?” asks Wilkerson. “I feel like we’ve been encouraged and given the challenge … to create systems that we think are better for our students. I feel like outdoor classrooms could be one of those things.”

She was planning to be on a sabbatical in Columbia this year before COVID-19 hit. Instead, she has had the time to identify 10 spaces at SLCSE where teachers can hold outdoor classrooms, examining their access to Wi-Fi, the times of day they have shade and their potential noise level.

Schools don’t need extensive infrastructure, she believes, but do need a specialist or training to help them shift their thinking toward the outdoors.

She has taken chemistry students on field trips to the Salt Lake Valley’s foothills to collect galls off oak trees and grind them up to make ink, and to the Great Salt Lake to compare the salinity at different spots with hydrometers.

“I see the outdoors as [having] all sorts of great possibilities for teaching and learning with students,” said Wilkerson.

Kristie Jensen, a pre-K teacher at Waterford, agrees. “I’ve always felt strongly about bringing children outside and you can see it in their faces as well," Jensen said. “The joy. It’s as if their brains light up when they’re outside.”

Waterford unveiled its outdoor classroom last year, complete with concrete tunnels, a hand pump watering area and boxes for planting. It partnered with Nature Explore, a national nonprofit, which sent architects to draw up plans specific to the area using natural resources and native plants.

“It’s different than teaching inside, where you want everyone to be quiet and listen to the teacher," Jensen said. "When you’re outside, it’s not a formal lesson. It’s impromptu. It’s spontaneous, and it changes. But this is shaping what life can be. It pushes us to think creatively about how to best utilize our resources.”

Sanctuary during uncertainty

On a recent weekday outside Riverton Elementary, kids with clipboards were crouched down looking at bugs and fallen leaves when teacher Donna Filion called out, “Marco!”

They responded “Polo!” in unison as they gathered around her. They were on a scavenger hunt looking for acorns, birds and leaves that are beginning to change colors.

Last year, the public school cleaned up a grove of mature trees planted on its property more than 20 years ago by an arborist who had hoped it would be used for an outdoor learning space. The large trees, native to Utah and identified with plaques, are alongside meandering dirt paths and nearby picnic tables.

“It’s very naturey,” said Eliza Davies, a fifth grader in Filion’s class, describing the outdoor classroom. “It’s a great place for learning.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in Riverton Elementary teacher Donna Filion's 5th grade class work on a science-based scavenger hunt in a small grove of mature trees at the school.

The school put together a map of other spots on its Riverton property that can safely accommodate 10 kids, or spaces where teachers can take up to 30 kids. They found that they can fit 270 kids outdoors If every spot gets used. PTA volunteer Rachael Farley helped provide student buckets with magnifying glasses, books and rulers, and for teachers, buckets with Band-Aids, a soft cushion to sit on and whiteboards.

“Every single one of the grades has something they can learn out here in this space,” Farley said, “and it relates directly to their core [curriculum].”

Getting outside has been a “critical” help as students returned this fall, said Principal Joel Pullan. Experiences that level the playing field are important for equity and accessibility in education, he said, and learning outdoors has supported “the social emotional learning piece” for them.

“Every procedure, from walking down the hall to lunch, changed over the summer for our kids," he said. "And we knew there would be uncertainty. We knew it would be unsettling for kids.

"It’s tough to come back in that kind of environment, and so we made sure that we were pushing [outdoor classrooms] and saying, ‘This is an opportunity to help ease those feelings, that anxiety coming back to something that’s completely new, even for a fifth grader who’s been here for years.’ It’s new for everyone.”

If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com.