Embracing Nature at School was the title of my August Column, which featured administrators from public and private schools throughout Hopewell Valley stating how they intended to use outdoor learning in their respective school opening plans. Since one is far less likely to contract Covid-19 outdoors than in, it followed that outdoor learning was a responsible option for promoting a healthy school environment.

This school year, the private schools have reopened in-person instruction using strict safety protocols, and HVRSD is offering a choice between fully remote and hybrid. The majority of families chose the hybrid model, which is also the recommended approach from both the Department of Education and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as the district’s own return-to-school committee.

The private schools and the HVRSD hybrid model employ outdoor learning. I interviewed the superintendent, Dr. Thomas Smith, assistant superintendent Dr. Rosetta Treece, and 2019-2020 Mercer County Teacher of the Year Helen Corveleyn, and all reported that outdoor learning has had a tremendously positive impact on school reopening and the benefits extend far beyond a pandemic response.

Dr. Smith said that students get outside every day for curricular learning or simply to get a “mask break.” Dr. Treece shared that outdoor learning fits nicely in the district’s ongoing efforts with mindfulness and social emotional learning. Ms. Corveleyn stressed how important sunshine and nature are to a child’s “developing brain.”

The video of my interviews is below and can also be viewed at fohvos.org.

Students have only been back to school a couple of weeks and the families I have spoken with report that their kids are thrilled to be back. The high school had a couple all remote days to allow for sanitation after a positive Covid case, but has recovered for the time being. One high school parent said to me, “My daughter was fine last spring with the remote learning, and while I read about people experiencing sadness and other issues from being isolated, I thought she was weathering it quite well. But apparently she missed it more than I knew. I was really surprised how effusive and appreciative she was to be back with people her own age again.”

Families I have spoken with report that their kids are thrilled to be back in school.

While well-deserved fanfare abounds for the teachers and administrators that are on the front lines with students, the unsung heroes are the facilities team that make the schools safe for returning and the board of education members that bucked the all-remote trend.

Tom Quinn is the HVRSD director of facilities. Prior to the pandemic, he oversaw the referendum-supported school updates. His team work tirelessly to assure student safety and security by following strict cleaning protocols. They’ll drop everything at a minute’s notice to ensure the welfare of our community. The transportation team, led by Heather Van Mater, also has unique challenges to address.

While the entire school board had approved the current return to school plan, there was a last-minute attempt to delay in-person instruction in favor of an all-remote opening. The delay was proposed for several reasons, including recommendations from the NJEA and in response to neighboring districts choosing an all- remote start.

The final vote was a narrow 5-4. Those voting to allow hybrid in-person learning with a fully remote option included board vice president Adam Sawicki, retiring board member Sarah Tracy, and the board’s newest appointed board members Jess Grillo, Bill Herbert, and John Mason.

Herbert said. “Now is the time to go back to school, when cases are low and we have a solid plan in place. We don’t know what the future will bring, and cases may spike in the winter; if that happens, we may have to make the decision to close schools again.”

Neighboring districts Princeton and Ewing began remotely and plan to have all of their schools offering a hybrid option on Oct. 19 and Oct. 26, respectively.

While it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the HVRSD staff educating our children, let’s not forget the people that literally made it possible. Adam, Sarah and the newest BOE members made a courageous choice that all of the hybrid participating families I spoke with greatly appreciate. Including an all remote option provides a selection to best fit individual family needs.

Hopewell officials have a long history of marching to their own beat and bucking the local trends — most recently when state and county parks closed, and Hopewell Valley municipal leaders opted to keep our open spaces open so community members would have healthy outdoor options in times of a pandemic.

We are so fortunate to live in area with wealth of green spaces that taxpayers and local leaders prioritize to keep our community healthy and green.

Lisa Wolff is the executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. Email: lwolff@fohvos.org.