As fall quickly approaches, the school reopening debate rages on in the media. Will students return school as they had pre-pandemic or will they continue all remote learning? Let’s hope the answer is NO to both and that we refrain from this polarizing black and white thinking. That said, simply combining the two approaches indicates a lack of imagination and a missed opportunity to improve education quality.

Let’s start with the science—the most likely place to transmit coronavirus is indoors with groups of people in close quarters. Conversely, one is far less likely to contract COVID-19 outdoors than in. Hence, all the state economic reopening plans began with outdoor solutions.

Yet, we very rarely hear about increasing opportunities for outdoor education. In its 104-page framework to reopening schools, the NJ Department of Education offered fiveguidelines related to outdoor learning: inventory outdoor spaces and mark off areas to ensure separation between students; increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example, by opening windows and doors; disinfect playground equipment; wash hands when students come in from outdoor play or recessl and allow outdoor classrooms where possible and when seasonally appropriate. All is good advice but our valley educators and administrators take it to the next level with their tremendous insights.

Forward thinking public and private schools have planned for outdoor learning for years. Coronavirus simply hastened those plans. Chris Turnbull, principal of Bear Tavern Elementary School, remarked that in the midst of school reopening, “it’s even more critical now,” however he was quick to point out, “we value that anyway. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good for kids.”

Mr. Turnbull reinforced that pandemic or not, he believes that outdoor learning is a priority and that students retain more and are more engaged in a natural outdoor setting. After years of building an outdoor learning area, his focus now is adding functionality to maximize usability. While exploring nature is important, he aims to get the best of both worlds. Their outdoor learning areas feature a pond, walking trails, a butterfly meadow, gardens, performing and mindfulness areas and, he was excited to share that, the most recent component added is the deck. “It will fit a whole class and we intentionally included many elements (of a traditional classroom) like white boards and tables.”

According to the CDC, choir practices can be “superspreader events.” Patricia Riley, principal of Hopewell Valley Central High School, plans to use the outdoors to mitigate that risk. “Although we are planning to continue our use of outdoor classroom spaces for group discussions, literature circles and mindfulness activities, we’re also expanding our use of these spaces to better meet the needs of the performing arts classes.” She emphasized, “Since classes like choir and band will require additional space and frequent air circulation to help prevent airborne transmission of disease, we’ll be using outdoor rehearsal spaces as often as possible. We’re excited to provide these opportunities for our students, not only as a preventative measure for physical health, but to promote mental health as well.”

Many other educators are also focusing on aspects of mental health and wellness. In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he explains that constant exposure to screens indoors can be harmful to children. Local administrators have similar concerns. “Outdoor learning will be an essential part of education as we move forward. As screen time increases because of virtual learning, our youngest and most creative minds need constant breaks from the computer,” said Helen Corveleyn, STEM coordinator at Hopewell Elementary School and FOHVOS Board Trustee, “Outdoor learning provides many avenues for developing the whole child. Natural settings offer a multisensory invigoration for the human brain that enhances learning. Fresh air, natural light and open space allow students to create, invent and flourish at school.”

Local private schools are also considering the aesthetics of learning spaces. At The Pennington School a committee comprised of all related stakeholders determined that outdoor classrooms are “a key addition to the campus as we consider our future.” Bill Hawkey, headmaster, added, “Over the next several years we envision adding 3 to 4 outdoor classrooms in key spots around the campus. These classrooms would be situated in areas where we can take full advantage of our beautiful campus and our natural outdoor resources. For example, the area around our Lowellden Pond would make an ideal spot to locate an outdoor classroom. Outdoor classrooms can range in size, architectural treatments, to more rustic/natural finishes. We imagine all types of outdoor classrooms in our future plans. We are strong believers in the aesthetics of learning spaces—from natural lighting to fresh air—and nothing can provide these conditions like an outdoor classroom.”

Headmaster Hawkey also shared plans to meet more immediate needs. “We decided to add a number of large outdoor tents to the campus to serve as outdoor classrooms, additional Dining space, and room for larger outdoor gatherings. Our plan is to utilize these outdoor tents for as long as possible through the fall to allow for students and teachers to be outdoors and not as much in smaller confined indoor spaces for as much of the day as possible. We will also be De-densifying our campus with students and only essential personnel to allow us to maintain proper social distancing.”

The Cambridge School will also increase their outdoor classroom usage. Courtney Peters-Manning, finance director, reports, “Physical education classes at Cambridge for the 2020-21 academic year will be held primarily outdoors to the greatest extent possible. Cambridge also has two outdoor classrooms that will be in use for the 2020-21 school year, and we are working on plans to increase instruction that occurs outdoors.”

Dr. Thomas Smith, Hopewell Valley Regional School District superintendent, shared that the transition to outdoor learning should be seamless due to the rural nature of Hopewell Valley and the district’s prior work with Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space to bring outdoor learning to every school. Smith concluded, “When we began our efforts to develop and expand outdoor classrooms, it was really to expose tech-obsessed students to the natural world around them. FoHVOS was an integral part in the development of these learning spaces. Fast forward to a pandemic—outdoor learning spaces are critical to our return to school plan and a necessity for the health and safety of our staff and students. Luckily, we have been encouraging our staff to use the outdoors so for most it won’t be a huge transition. Other schools may prohibit staff from taking students outside of the classrooms, we are embracing our rural character.”

It is heartening that schools throughout Hopewell Valley know that they won’t “return to normal” and intend to take the opportunity to apply some of the positive lessons we have learned throughout this pandemic.