Re-Opening Schools in a Pandemic

By Cheryl Charles, Ph.D.

Co-Founder, President and CEO Emerita, Children & Nature Network

This position statement was developed by advisors to Inside-Outside: Nature-Based Educators of New England, whose purpose is to develop a network of individuals and organizations in New England committed to connecting, supporting, and joyfully venturing outdoors in nature with children for teaching and learning.

“It is time to pivot toward teaching and learning in outdoor environments.” These are words shared in a new position statement developed by a group of experienced educators and scholars, including me, to help address recommendations for re-opening schools during the impacts of COVID-19. While the statement is especially designed for schools planning to re-open in the fall in the states of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, the concepts and underlying research are applicable broadly.

This is clearly a troubling time. And, unfortunately, guidance to parents, teachers, and community members about how, if at all, to re-open schools is too often inconsistent, incomplete, and sometimes contradictory. This is frustrating and at times frightening for many of us, including for those who are deeply committed to safe and nurturing educational experiences for our communities’ children and their teachers.

However, there are some things we know with confidence, so these are the points that govern our recommendations at this time. The three key points of the statement, “Outdoor Learning Opportunities for Healthy Students: A Solution for Elementary Schools During COVID-19,” are that:

  • Time outdoors protects against virus transmission.

  • Nature-based education provides positive academic outcomes.

  • Nature-based education offers proven mental health benefits.

We urge educators everywhere to consider opening the school building doors to embrace learning outdoors. For some teachers not as familiar with outdoor classrooms and nature-based learning, it can be as simple as doing routine activities like check-ins, reading circles, story-telling, physical education, art and math activities in an outdoor setting. For others it can include those activities and more, facilitating project-based learning in meaningful ways in safe and diverse outdoor environments. Educational experiences that are offered in outdoor settings are demonstrated to bring a host of benefits, even during a pandemic. Of the many benefits, one that will be especially welcome—in addition to the obvious reduced risks of contagion and enhanced educational outcomes—is the sense of peace and calm, confidence and joy, that will be shared by students and teachers alike. Be well, be safe, and get outdoors in nature as often as possible.

We are leading a global movement to increase equitable access to nature so that children– and natural places–can thrive.​ ​We ​do this ​by investing in leadership and communities through sharing evidence-based resources, scaling innovative solutions and driving policy change.

© 2020 Children & Nature Network