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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Can We Have School Outside? Kansas City Could Take This Chance To Rethink Education Entirely

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A tent filled with folding tables and chairs houses outdoor classrooms at St. Paul's Episcopal Day School.

While most districts spent the last year debating in-person vs. remote learning or going back and forth over masking policies, some schools focused on building classrooms in the great outdoors.

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Last summer, as the Prairie Hill Waldorf School just outside of Milwaukee began drawing up plans to resume in-person learning, fourth-grade teacher Lindsey Earle wondered what it would take to move school outdoors — completely.

Earle had no prior experience in construction, but she spent most of the summer break building an open-air classroom out of donated, repurposed and recycled materials.

In trying to make outdoor learning reasonably comfortable in Wisconsin — walls to block blustery wind, enough airflow to keep it COVID-safe — she ended up with a complicated, 12-sided structure.

"Mathematically, I was like, OK, if I have 12 walls —and I measured from the center post to the wall and divided it into little tiny pieces — I figured out that I could easily space the children six feet apart," Earle explains.

Calculating the area of a dodecagon is a matter of serious trigonometry. "It tested my math skills," Earle admits.

For a roof to keep out rain and snow, she used a tarp, which required patching throughout the year. Spotting new holes in the tarp became a fun class project: "It was a good lesson of 'water finds the path of least resistance,'" she says with a laugh.

The whole thing sounds very Laura Ingalls Wilder. But Earle's class was able to meet in-person throughout the 2020-2021 school year, with a built-in reprieve from mask-wearing.

Kids' questions about the birds they spotted inspired a unit on migration, drawn directly from their setting. A year characterized by restrictions, by what kids couldn't do, transformed into an adventure, an exploration of what they could do.

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Prairie Hill Waldorf School
Lindsey Earle's outdoor fourth-grade classroom is ambitious.

Although outdoor education isn't new in the United States, the movement gained serious momentum when COVID-19 shut down schools and sent both students and teachers home.

With the more-contagious delta variant greeting the start of another school year, mask mandates are reappearing in districts throughout the metro. And Kansas City Public Schools just announced that teachers and staff will be required to either be vaccinated by the end of August, or get tested weekly for the coronavirus.

The situation clearly warrants dramatic intervention. And why stop there? Why not take the opportunity to really rethink education? Why not move to the great outdoors?

The concept might sound like an impractical hippie fantasy, suitable for a Waldorf school — like the one where Earle teaches — but not for mainstream learning settings. And there is some truth in that. In both resources and flexibility, private schools have options that public schools typically do not.

Private schools can sometimes pivot on a dime, without having to navigate as many layers of bureaucracy and oversight. Making space for a small class outdoors is one thing; uprooting a student body larger than some towns is quite another.

But for any indoor school, adapting the learning environment for pandemic safety is not without significant costs, hassles or community objections. And remote learning, in the context of our stubbornly persistent digital divide, is far from an equitable solution.

A willingness to explore new possibilities — whether outdoor learning or some other innovation — might help us get through a second pandemic school year with a little more sanity.

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Prairie Hill Waldorf School
Kids hike to class every morning at Prairie Hill Waldorf School in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.

After all, other facets of Kansas City life have already changed for good as a result of creative pandemic problem-solving. Restaurants quickly transformed sidewalks and parking lots into outdoor dining areas. Churches, gyms, and music venues gathered sizable groups al fresco as well, reimagining urban and suburban infrastructure to do so.

There's no reason to think urban schools can't join this movement.

In fall 2020, New York City — where space is hardly abundant — approved about 1,100 proposals from public schools to move classes outdoors, according to the New York Times, with requests ranging from closing down city streets to convening classes in parks to repurposing rooftops and basketball courts.

Here in the Midwest, public schools participated in the outdoor schooling movement years before the coronavirus appeared. Since 2015, teacher Peter Dargatz has been leading what he calls "Nature Kindergarten" in Sussex, Wisconsin, taking over what used to be a weedy lot behind his school. He got permission to move class outdoors by adhering to a strict condition: His kindergartners must continue testing at the same level in reading and math.

"They're reaching that level for a myriad of reasons," Dargatz tells me. "It's more meaningful to them. It's more memorable. Being outside the physical benefits, they're healthier."

So it strikes me as curious that Kansas City has mostly avoided the conversation about outdoor learning.

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Peter Dargatz
An outdoor classroom can literally be a bunch of tree stumps that double as desks and chairs, like this "grass class" area from Peter Dargatz's nature kindergarten.

Kansas City's Department of Parks and Recreation says it's received no inquiries about possible school partnerships, and Wildwood Outdoor Education Center in La Cygne, Kansas — a popular destination for field trips in non-pandemic times — says it's heard no requests from area schools to partner on outdoor learning.

"We'd love to get a phone call like that!" says Jane Blakely, Wildwood's community engagement manager. "But it hasn't happened."

Most principals, understandably, aren't about to start building dodecagons on the prairie. But getting kids outside more doesn't have to be as elaborate as what Lindsey Earle attempted.

In midtown Kansas City, St. Paul's Episcopal Day School (where my niece and nephew go to school) put up a big tent next to a soccer field last fall, filled it with folding tables and chairs, and divvied up the added space by grade level. Teachers were encouraged — but not required — to use the makeshift outdoor classrooms as much as possible.

"We actually expanded the WiFi to cover that area in case they wanted to take their devices and stuff," says Head of School Andrew Mylar.

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"It maybe made some of the other things that we weren't able to do at the beginning of the year less painful," says St. Paul's Head of School Andrew Mylar of the outdoor class space.

Mylar acknowledges that being a private school puts St. Paul's in a position to make these changes with relative ease. But he also notes that throwing up that tent was one of the school's smallest COVID-related expenditures last year.

The outdoor classrooms St. Paul's added could fit in a parking lot, Mylar says, and they proved especially useful for lunchtime. The whole experience was so overwhelmingly positive that Mylar is revising St. Paul's master plan to incorporate more permanent outdoor classrooms going forward.

Maybe there's something to be learned from all the crazy adjustments kids and teachers are making. Once the mask mandates and vaccination policies are firmly established, let's move on to bigger questions about what education really means — and what it could mean.

Having committed to what's safe, let's dare to ask what's possible.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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