The Learning Curve: The Case for Outdoor School in San Diego - Voice of San Diego

Education

The Learning Curve: The Case for Outdoor School in San Diego

Sending everyone back inside buildings could easily be a categorical disaster. But there is an equitable and perfectly feasible solution for San Diego’s most vulnerable students: Have school outside.

Kids participate in Chollas-Meade Elementary’s summer learning program. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Can anyone name a city in these United States that is more suited to outdoor classes than San Diego?

Las Vegas has the least rainfall, but it’s way too hot. Phoenix? It also gets less rain, but I won’t even stoop to make an argument about why San Diego is better.

This city is never too hot or too cold. A hoodie is literally all the foul weather gear you need for even the worst of times.

The only possible downside I can even think of is there aren’t enough trees. A sunhat for every student!

Here’s what we know as of right now: in San Diego and Los Angeles, zero students will be allowed to go back to school in August. But here’s what we also know: School-like programs, because they are technically considered daycares, are springing up everywhere. For parents who can pay, there will be many places to send their kids to socialize and receive adult instruction.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that learning pods – clusters of families that hire a tutor to educate their children together – threatened to take us back to a time before public schools existed. Maybe that sounded overly dramatic. But now, witnessing the rise of professional, fee-based, school-like programs, I think I might have undersold it.

Here’s the question: Are school districts going to come up with some kind of alternative for the most vulnerable students, who can’t afford a year-round camp?

As of right now, there is no such plan.

Solving the back-to-school problem is very, very difficult. Sending everyone back inside buildings could easily be a categorical disaster. But there is an equitable and perfectly feasible solution for San Diego’s most vulnerable students: Have school outside.

“If they could do it 100 years ago, we can do it now,” said Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America. Danks was referring to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. At the time, many schools simply moved their classes outdoors.

Danks, whose organization has advocated for more outside teaching for years, thinks this solution should be able to accommodate all students – not just those whose families can’t afford school/camp.

“It’s the simplest of all possible solutions: Move your classroom,” she said.

Coronavirus is 20 times more likely to spread indoors, as The Atlantic recently noted in a piece asking, “Why can’t we just have class outside?”

City Councilman Chris Cate has floated a plan for outdoor classrooms. But Cate has no real influence on education policy. And San Diego Unified board vice president Richard Barrera essentially told him to stay in his lane in an interview with the Union-Tribune.

San Diego Unified has not done any widespread consideration of moving classes outdoors, spokeswoman Maureen Magee told The Atlantic. “There was no proposal for outdoor learning that I recall,” she said.

She later clarified in a series of tweets that some individual schools had considered how they might create outdoor classrooms.

San Diego is extremely well-positioned to hold class outside, Danks said. The amount of outdoor space each school has varies greatly, but most Southern California schools have ample space, she said. Many classrooms already have two doors that open onto the outdoors. (“All you have to do is move the desks onto the shady side.”) There are also outdoor hallways and outdoor cafeteria space that many other districts don’t have on such a widespread scale.

The district has also spent more than $100 million in recent years upgrading and creating fields and stadiums with bond money. All that space is ready to be used.

Emalyn Leppard is a teacher at Montgomery Middle School in San Diego Unified. She has managed the school’s garden for years and has been attending virtual sessions on outdoor learning hosted by Green Schoolyards America, Danks’ group.

The school has more than enough space to do classes outside, she told me. She wants Montgomery to become a pilot school for outdoor learning.

“I have written to all the school board members,” she said. “I haven’t gotten any formal response.”

San Diego Unified will meet on Aug. 10 to reveal new details on how it plans to start the school year. The district has had discussions about bringing special education students and homeless students back to campus, but it’s unclear how that might play out. A standing order from the governor says that schools in most counties across the state, including San Diego, cannot go back to school until the number of coronavirus cases comes down. (That order does not prevent “daycares” from operating.)

“Schools find it hard to think outside of their walls. Teachers are not usually taught in teacher training how to teach outside,” Danks said. On top of that, consider the bureaucracy, she said. “The bigger the organization, the longer it takes to do something new.”

What We’re Writing

  • In the absence of clear state guidance around schools, Los Angeles and San Diego Unified have found a way to start driving statewide education policy. The two districts have started making joint decisions around coronavirus that most other districts end up following. But the partnership started before the pandemic for very different reasons.
  • National City School District became consumed by leadership turmoil last year. Various administrators filed dueling complaints against one another. The debacle ended with the top business official being ousted and collecting ten months’ worth of pay.
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