To promote and enable outdoor education and activity

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If I had known it was this easy, I would have done it long ago

                                             (Participant in an outdoor skills course)

This page is to be used in conjunction with Federal, Provincial, Municipal, and Departmental guidance on Covid-19 safety and your provinces K-12 education restart plans.

Taking students outdoors has been suggested in most restart plans for schools.

Please note that this page is focused on supporting ’Learning Outdoors’ (delivery of the regular curriculum in the ‘Fresh-Air Classroom’). This is not to be confused with ‘Outdoor learning’ which uses features of the outdoor environment to enrich or inform the curriculum, which we also support but requires additional skills etc.

Your ability to use the suggestions on this page depend on your particular context. There are enormous organizational, cultural, capacity and attitudinal barriers to creating a robust Fresh-Air classroom. Some of these you will be able to tackle and overcome. Some you will not. Either way, be prepared to think outside the box.

In an ideal world, at least 50% of classrooms would be Fresh-Air classrooms on Day-1. This would enable the school to maximize use of the two most powerful tools to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak: physical distancing and fresh air.

Very few schools will be able to achieve anything like that ideal, so we have highlighted three general targets for the use of Fresh-Air classrooms:

    1. Occasional use of the Fresh-Air Classroom: Classes are held outside when weather permits. No special equipment or training provided.
    2. Robust use of the Fresh-Air Classroom: School level initiative where overhead shelter is provided, training for teachers and other equipment is provided.
    3. System-wide use of the Fresh-Air Classroom: Boards and departments of education provide resources sufficient to provide sufficient shelter for 50% of student population and students are supported in having clothing appropriate to the weather, and schools required to make every effort to use the Fresh-Air classrooms.

Your goal should be to have a Fresh-Air classrooms in place by the beginning of the semester. Think of it as a classroom without walls. An early start will enable teachers and students to build the experience and self-efficacy required to successfully use the Fresh- Air classrooms longer into the school year.

Before you start, take a deep breath. Be prepared to question all your assumptions about what a safe and high-quality learning environment looks like. You will quickly realize that much more is possible in Fresh-Air classrooms than you first expected.

Space and Scheduling

    • The safest place for your students and staff this fall will be outdoors. Maximum use of the outdoor space will also protect their families, and ultimately everyone else in the community. Approach space and scheduling planning from the perspective of ‘How can I minimize the time students are inside’. Consideration include:
    • Can learning outcomes that normally employ things that don’t work well outdoors, like videos or computers, be delivered using different strategies.
    •  A well-designed classroom combined with well- equipped students who have been empowered to manage self-care will enable the classroom to remain usable in much more inclement weather than you currently think possible.

Occasional Use of the Fresh-Air Classroom

This level of innovation is likely the option chosen by most schools. Teachers go outside when the weather is favourable. Considerations are:

    • As per health authority’s recommendations, outdoor time should be increased over the normal school year.
    • Teachers should be encouraged to adjust their lesson plans to deliver content outdoors where possible.
    • Students should be asked to bring some outdoor clothing so as to be comfortable outside.

While Fresh-Air classrooms will be helpful for the health of the school community on several levels, the disadvantages of this approach include:

    • It will be challenging to schedule since inclement weather will force the class inside in random ways
    • The effectiveness of learning will frequently be compromised by environmental factors
    • Since increasing amounts of time will be spent indoors as the weather cools, the overall contribution to reducing Covid-19 infections will be quite small in September diminishing to zero by winter.

Robust Use of the Fresh-Air Classroom

For this approach the school uses easily purchased resources to create a safe and high-quality Fresh-Air classroom. The degree to which this approach provides protection from Covid-19 for the school community will depend on the degree to which this Fresh-Air classroom is used. Ideally the classroom becomes a long- term part of the school class rotation and is used throughout the year depending on local climate.

The essential ingredients for a safe and high-quality Fresh-Air classroom are overhead shelter (and possibly wind shelter); universal access by the teachers and students to appropriate clothing, and some provision of additional equipment such as black or white boards; mats or chairs, writing surfaces; blankets; etc.  

Overhead Shelter: The most challenging task will likely be providing overhead shelter. The following approaches can be considered:

    • A range of consumer shelters are available at any store that sells garden equipment.   A typical unit designed to cover a table will be large enough for 6-8 physically-distancing students, so several will be needed for 1 classroom
    • Cheaper units will need tethering if any wind is possible. Have site scanned for underground services before staking
    • These shelters typically have built-in mosquito netting which may be required
    •  Be prepared to bring the class inside if a high wind is forecast
    • Large commercial shelters can be sourced. (Since large gatherings are not permitted at the moment there are a lot of event tents available)
    • Improvised shelters large enough for a larger group using Tarpaulins are possible if sturdy upright supports like medium to large trees are available. Experienced Outdoor Leaders are typically skilled at constructing these shelters. If you do not have one on staff, consider consulting a local outfitter. Be prepared to bring the class inside if a high wind is forecast.
    • A sturdy shelter may be constructed using common materials from a hardware store. While this will be a great solution you will need to get it professionally made and possibly stamped by an engineer.

Comfortable Staff and Students: It is essential that staff and students can be physically comfortable all day in an environment that is far more dynamic than the indoor space. There are two parts to this. Having the right equipment (primarily clothing) and knowing how to use it.

Clothing: because you have overhead shelter, your class will not get wet and this opens doors to use less expensive clothing rather than expensive ‘outdoor clothing’.

    • Layering of clothing: Having enough layers that can be put on or taken off as the temperature changes will be key.
    • A windproof outer layer big enough to go over everything is makes temperature control easier, especially if any sort of wind is blowing.
    • While wool or synthetics are typically better where you might get wet, but in this case cotton will work just fine unless the relative humidity is high. Denim is cotton and can be an effective windproof layer.
    • Links to choice and use can be found here: Online Resources
    • Blankets are a great addition

The ancient adage ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’ is (mostly) true. However, learning to use the clothing to best effect is a learned skill. Students will need to be encouraged to take charge of their own comfort.

Other Comfort Equipment: Each school will have its own unique environment. Particular challenges may be:

    • Wind. If your site is windy:
    • Your shelter will need to be sturdy.
    • Consider installing wind breaks
    • Ambient noise may be an issue. If it is unavoidable consider a sound barrier
    • Biting flies are a huge distraction. For occasional use, bug spray is fine, but you many need to install mosquito netting

Robust Use of the Fresh-Air Classroom

From a risk-management perspective, this is the optimal approach. There is no doubt that executing it will require considerable resources. However, a risk-management approach balances the cost of a particular action against the cost of not acting. Fresh- Air classrooms can be an essential part of the risk management strategy.

© Outdoor Council of Canada

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