SEATTLE — Think of what you see and hear in the woods. Bird song. Spiderwebs. Branches framing the sky.
This particular forest is in Port Townsend. It’s an old-growth plot called the Quimper Lost Wilderness. Many of the trees here are more than 170 years old.
It’s also the site of a local private school’s new outdoor classroom. No desks, no smartboards. Instead, the school will bring in local botanists, poets and historians to teach students about the land’s first people and its role as a habitat for plants and animals. Says Emily Gohn, the school’s head: Class is in session, rain or shine.
At a time when thousands of children and their teachers are reinventing school on screens, places like Swan School are experimenting with the polar opposite: bringing school to nature. Gohn and a handful of other Washington school leaders are trying their hand at outdoor schooling, a concept that has gained traction nationwide amid pandemic school closures. Seattle schools, for instance, are starting online but may eventually bring some classes back outdoors.
For its part, Swan School is planning for outdoor learning beyond the last sunny days of summer.
“There’s such good forest cover that we can be there as the weather turns … as it gets into the foggier and drippier fall season,” said Gohn. The school recently adopted the land and plans to bring its 55 students there a few times each month. “This is 100% in response to COVID. We need to get them outside and we need some really luscious, wonderful projects so we’re not all just sitting in the cold on the ground.”
Swan School is the only school returning for full-time in-person learning within Port Townsend city limits, Gohn said; classes started Aug. 24. For Gohn, resuming class has meant unpacking everything she and her staff used to do, and why they did it.
Her intention isn’t to replicate what they did before coronavirus outside. Instead, the school aims to transform how students learn.
Four days a week, Swan School children come to school in masks, get their temperature checked by staff, and head to their outdoor classrooms. The school’s campus occupies a city block, and there’s enough space — a playground, patio, a basketball court — that teachers have room to spread their classes out under large, newly erected sun sails, cloth tarps that create shade. On Wednesdays, everyone takes a break and heads to the forest or another outdoor field trip. They’re mapping local coastlines for the next few weeks, Gohn said.
The concept of outdoor schooling isn’t new. Last year, Washington became the first state in the nation to license outdoor preschools. “Forest schools,” for young children are popular in parts of Europe and exist in many states in the U.S.
But the pandemic version of outdoor schooling is unique. Unsurprisingly, Gohn said, there are few resources out there for creating collaborative, socially distant outdoor classrooms. She’s improvising. Gohn teaches the school’s kindergartners and first graders, and said she made up a morning greeting game involving 6-foot ropes. About 40% of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; a majority of the students are white, but the school is more racially and ethnically diverse than Port Townsend, Gohn said.
There are serious practical challenges. There’s the weather. Two students were stung by bees. And students are spread so far apart that teachers have to raise their voices. “Projecting my voice that far away for six straight hours is exhausting, especially when I’m really paranoid about having a sore throat,” Gohn said.
These challenges would be insurmountable at scale. Many public schools don’t have large campuses or the financial resources to construct outdoor classrooms and outfit students with rain gear.
“There’s a lot of issues with that. Obviously weather, equity, which kids have the proper clothes,” said Brian Healy, a science instructor at Environmental and Adventure School, a Lake Washington public middle school that incorporates several outdoor education trips and projects into its curriculum. Healy helped found the school with John Hamilton, who said the idea was born out of a love for both summer camp and teaching.
Like the rest of its district, the school is starting the school year remotely. “A lot of the stuff we would do and how we would try to go about it would be limited by the fact that we couldn’t be all together doing it,” because of coronavirus, Hamilton said.
Local health officials here and elsewhere in the state have advised schools against reopening buildings. Community transmission is still high in many areas, and leading epidemiologists have suggested schools shouldn’t reopen until the virus’s spread drops below certain thresholds.
But schools that have decided to open outdoors say they’re mitigating many health risks.
On Thursday morning at Seattle Hebrew Academy, a Modern Orthodox Jewish school on Capitol Hill, cars filled with children and parents streamed through a parking lot where teachers took temperatures and ensured parents filled out a COVID-19 symptom checklist on a phone app.
“Jan, you’ve got a customer,” said Rivy Poupko Kletenik, the head of school, to art teacher Jan Harvey. Harvey aimed an infrared thermometer at a girl’s forehead and checked that it was below 100 degrees.
After a phased-in return of some students this week, Thursday marked the first day of 100% outdoor learning for all grades at the school. Classrooms under tents dotted the grounds: Middle school girls in sweatshirts — it was a chilly morning — began taking seats at desks positioned on blacktop. A set of white pitched canopies promised shade as the sun peaked above the clouds. Across campus, first graders found their desks and took out markers. Teachers stuck name tags to each desk to help identify their new students, who are masked and seated at least 6 feet from their classmates.
The campus, a wooded refuge with grassy plazas, playgrounds and fields, is tucked back in Interlaken Park. A few security guards stood watch at the school’s gate.
The school doubled its security since it decided to reopen outdoors, Kletenik said. It’s made other changes, too, like adding outdoor Wi-Fi and live-streaming classes via a tablet for students who are sick or have decided against returning in-person.
But other changes are low-tech. Instead of using PowerPoint presentations or videos, teachers are reverting back to more basic tools: easels with oversized paper pads and chalk boards sat at the front of many of the school’s 13 outdoor classrooms.
Eighth-grader Cohava Hassan, 13, called it “minimalist.” “It’s going to be nice to not have so much technology so the teacher can actually teach us,” she said.
She’ll be paying close attention, she said. Or, closer attention than usual. Passing notes to friends, an old habit, is prohibited for health reasons. Plus, her classmates are now more than an arm’s length away.
“I [used to] pass notes a lot during class. So I guess it’s good I can listen to the teacher more.”