COVID-19 Accelerates Harrisonburg City Schools Plan to Increase Outdoor Learning

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COVID-19 is accelerating Harrisonburg City Schools’ push for more outdoor classrooms. At a school board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Michael Richards said outdoor classrooms would provide more space for safe in-person classes. But Richards said the plan isn’t just a temporary plan to solve a problem caused by the pandemic.

“One thing that’s been a conversation at universities and around the country in terms of COVID and social distancing and air quality and other mitigation strategies is teaching more outdoors,” Richards told the board. “And one thing that we’ve done really well in the valley and in Harrisonburg in particular is we’ve gotten students outdoors. Each of our schools have some nice outdoor space. We see the value in that, in extending the classroom into the natural world.”

Harrisonburg City Schools students are currently mostly in virtual learning.

Richards told the board, “Our goals are to reopen safely and equitably using outdoor spaces as strategic, cost-effective tools to increase capacity with physical distancing and air quality measures naturally in place.”

Other goals include improving learning, mental, and physical health. Richards said while they would start with easy-to-implement measures like more gravel on trails and outdoor benches, he wanted to make permanent changes.

“It is about the pandemic, but it is not only about the needs of the pandemic,” he told the board. He told The Virginia Star that most of the districts’ schools have gardens for students to work in and nature trails.

“We want to make those more formal, in terms of seating, in terms of shade, bug netting,” Richards said. “We want to make sure they’re accessible to students who may have a disability, so there’s a lot of planning and work that goes into that.”

Because outdoor learning is cost-efficient, the plan won’t require an increase in taxes or spending. The district will invest in outdoor resources instead of some optional indoor resources, Richards said.

The pandemic initially interrupted the district’s plans, but Richards said with spring and summer coming, the district is re-energized to expand outdoor learning. The district has partnered with the Horizons Learning Foundation to get students in outdoor learning environments. Richards said those programs had benefits to students’ mental well being.

“I’m envisioning that any class could be in an outdoor setting at different times,” Richards said. “It doesn’t mean they’re all going to be outdoors. There might be some that are completely indoors. It depends on how the curriculum and the instruction are placed.”

Richards said teachers can figure out how to integrate the outdoor spaces into the classes.

“What I’m doing as a superintendent is opening up new resources for teachers, and those resources will be outdoor classrooms,” he said.”What I’m envisioning is a teacher saying, ‘Well, I’m going to take you out to the garden for this lesson, I’m going to take you to the gazebo for this lesson, I’m going to take you to the nature trail for this one,’ and so forth. Maybe part of the class, maybe the whole class.”

Richards said that while staff would have to take weather concerns seriously, the format would allow for easy shifts between indoor and outdoor learning.

“When I say there needs to be fluid transition from inside to outside the buildings, that’s a very different thing than traditional education has ever had, because you’re contained in the building, you go out for recess. If you’re lucky and you have a high school that has some kind of atrium outdoors around the cafeteria, you get to go out there during lunch or whatever,” Richards said.

He said, “This is expanding the learning spaces from the inside of the school to the outside, so there would be a very fluid way of transitioning students back and forth.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network.  Email tips to [email protected]

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