Our way to cope with COVID-19: An Outdoor Classroom

Like all schools in the US, we were forced to shut down our physical operation in mid-March 2020. Within less than a weekend, we adapted our classes to Zoom (which deserves a Noble prize for literally saving schools throughout the world by giving unlimited free accounts). We managed to keep the regular schedule as is though not without paying a high price which received the popular name of “Zoom fatigue”–a strong emotional and physical drainage as a result of overstimulation of the eyes and ears and undernourishment of all other senses. Teenagers suffer even more since they are in a hypersocial stage of development. A colleague of mine pinpointed their sensory deprivation of social interaction. She told me that by the end of the Spring 2020, she found her students “skin hungry.” Her words meant more than a distress due to the loss of the sense of human touch. Their abstraction abilities are still in a process of development. And so, without a concrete physical school and peers, most adolescents feel a loss of basic connection with reality. 

I absolutely do not condemn public schools for deciding to continue with online learning also in Fall 2020. With their enormous size, it is just impossible to provide a safe environment in person. We have the advantage of being a very small school with only 15 students and 4 leading teachers. This allows us to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. As a Montessori school, we have another advantage. We do not see history as facts written in textbooks but as a rich source for learning about the present from the past. This approach allowed us to avoid limiting our options only to the binary of online versus in-person (i.e. back to ordinary class). A fascinating article by Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times in July 2020 gave me the “eureka” moment. Referring to a short article published in 2016 in the Rhode Island Medical Journal, Bellafante told the story of outdoor classrooms that were created, first in Providence, RI and later in NYC and other US cities, to allow children to go to school safely during the Tuberculosis epidemic in 1907. Tuberculosis, just like COVID-19, is airborne. Its power of infection increases in closed spaces, but diminishes drastically in the open air. If small children in the upper East Coast could attend outdoor classrooms for an entire school year more than a century ago, why couldn’t teenagers in Virginia do the same in 2020? 

After checking a few options we decided to set up our outdoor classroom in the small parking lot adjacent to our 2,300 square feet indoor space. We purchased 10 units of premium-level 10×10 pop-up canopy tents with sides as well as 4 feet long outdoor tables and chairs. The indoor space will serve for storage, WiFi, electrical connection, and restrooms. To keep the indoor space free of potential virus, we installed UV light in the AC filter and bought a fogger to disinfect the air with Hypochlorous acid. We will leave the doors open so fresh air will constantly come from outside. Ceiling and floor fans will also keep airflow within the space. 

A peace of mind is most needed in this difficult time. We do not want to load more worries on parents and students. For this reason we designated Zoom as our meeting space. Students are invited to attend it either from home or from the outdoor classroom. We asked teachers to instruct over Zoom so that all the students will feel equal regardless if they participate from home or from the outdoor classroom. Our school is located in an urban area (Ghent, Norfolk, VA) with much surrounding noises. The Zoom space is also helpful for hearing each other better when we are spread in the outdoor tents. 

Students who attend the outdoor classroom will have to carry disposable masks and remain 6 feet apart. We will take their temperature daily and ask them to disinfect their hands regularly throughout the school day. 

This is an evolving experience. New needs will arise as time passes, seasons change and knowledge is accumulated. Between many tasks of running the school, I will try to keep a frequent journal to tell more about it.