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Yes, we can re-open schools if classes held outside: a rant by Louise Brown

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

It would have been such a simple, elegant way to re-open schools for the last three weeks. Safe for teachers, a break for parents, and an upbeat year-end for kids who’ve been stuck at home for months.

So why did we not re-open schools - and just keep classes outside?

It’s June, not January. Report cards are almost done, the heavy lifting is over. It’s time to wrap-up loose ends, consolidate what you’ve learned and celebrate the year. Have we ever needed that more? After months online, here was the chance for a taste of normal, if only for three weeks. Three weeks can work wonders. Three weeks to see something other than a screen, to actually gather for circle time or talk books on the school lawn - distanced, but face-to-face.

But here’s the irony: Premier Doug Ford refused to re-open Ontario schools because he said experts warn, “Outdoors good, indoors bad! We can’t send kids back to sit inside schools for eight hours a day together.”

Precisely. So don’t! Send them back to spend at least half of each day outside, at a distance, with masks when necessary, and Mother Nature’s ventilation keeping the virus at bay.

Some schools figured out early how to dish up curriculum al fresco.

At Secord Public School in Toronto, parents created eight open-air “classrooms” last fall so their kids could spend at least half of each day outside, where the risk of catching COVID-19 was low. The “walls” were just lines painted on the schoolyard asphalt. Each class had a blackboard. The principal bought three fish-cleaning tables from Walmart to serve as outdoor hand-washing stations so kids didn’t need to enter the school after lunch. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Kindergarten teachers were trailblazers at outdoor learning. One bought a clear plastic shower curtain from Dollarama, drew 100 squares on it, placed it outside on the ground and had kids do math on it using “treasures” they found in nature. There were outdoor Alphabet Scavenger Hunts and storybooks brought to life in playing fields.

At all grade levels, resourceful teachers took their COVID-weary students on hikes through ravines to learn science, and community walks to learn everything from map-making to the appreciation of street art. Some gave kids their own Ziploc “outdoor learning bags” with clipboard, paper, crayons and magnifying glass. Others cut yoga mats into squares for students to sit on. The clever folks at Secord School had a tree removal company donate a truckload of stumps (and avoid dumping fees) which a handy parent with a chainsaw cut into outdoor seats.

Not that schools even have to dream up outdoor learning ideas themselves. Hundreds of outdoor lesson plans are ready for every subject and grade on the Toronto Outdoor Education Schools website. Most school boards offer loads of help to those who want to take it outside.

Kindergarten teacher Jenny Lee Shee of Rose Ave. Public School in the heart of Toronto’s St. Jamestown, says taking kids outside is important in high-rise neighbourhoods where many kids don’t have ready access to green space, especially during lockdowns.

“A lot of behavior problems also disappear when you’re outside, because kids are super-engaged. When they can move their bodies, it mitigates a lot of behavior for kids who have trouble sitting still, because they can move around. That’s okay when you’re outside.”

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that many things are okay when you’re outside. It’s how we’ve kept friendships alive, and some businesses afloat.

Outdoors good, indoors bad. What a shame Ontario failed this lesson with schools.

Louise Brown was a long-time education reporter for the Toronto Star. A longer version of this rant may be found on the Toronto Star website.

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