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Schools in St. Louis move classes outdoors to help reduce risk of coronavirus spread

Schools in St. Louis move classes outdoors to help reduce risk of coronavirus spread


Art lessons in the quad. Music classes on the lawn. Science experiments in the park. In private schools across St. Louis, teachers and students have moved outside to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Classes are now held entirely outdoors at Forsyth School near Washington University. Half of the students in kindergarten through sixth grades attend in the mornings and half attend in the afternoons, while participating in virtual learning while they aren’t on the 4.5-acre campus.

Students bring their own camping chairs, beach towels and yoga mats to get comfortable on the grass. The school rented 13 tents to serve as classrooms. In the event of thunderstorms or extreme heat or cold, indoor classrooms can be used. But the mostly outdoor plan will stay indefinitely depending on the course of the virus, said Dan Hildebrand, head of school.

“A little bit of rain doesn’t mean we can’t have fun and be learning,” he said. “We’re teaching children an appreciation for the natural world.”

Hildebrand envisions the increased use of outdoor space will continue even post-pandemic as part of teaching children to be active and caring stewards of the environment. The school has received 36 inquiries from families seeking alternatives to virtual learning, he said.

Staff members were given the choice to teach from home if they were in high-risk categories for the virus. Those on campus said they appreciate the change in atmosphere and freedom of movement without tables, desks and whiteboards.

“Knowing my kid gets four hours of fresh air he normally wouldn’t is a blessing,” said Kristin Veldhuizen, a fourth grade teacher at Forsyth whose son is a second grader at the school.

The challenges with outdoor learning include distractions like planes flying overhead, cars driving by and of course the ubiquitous squirrels. Veldhuizen said teachers’ jobs include more heavy lifting now that they haul class materials in and out each day in a wagon. 

Learning outdoors reduces stress for students and boosts their performance, said Brenda Hente, seventh grade teacher at Immanuel Lutheran School in Olivette. She has added outdoor elements to the curriculum, including classification of natural items in science, angles and scale in math and exploration in history.

“There are so many ways that we can incorporate learning outside,” Hente said. “As educators we just need to take the risk of learning outside the normal four-roomed classrooms.”

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has urged educators to consider holding classes outdoors as a way to alleviate concerns about bringing students back to school buildings Sept. 21.


The city made it easier for school principals to apply for permits to close streets and reserve park space if they wanted to move students outdoors.

“Kids have always loved learning outdoors and being outdoors,” de Blasio, a Democrat, said in a news briefing last month. “It’s also great in terms of health and safety.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s chief infectious-disease expert, has also endorsed the idea of holding school outdoors to cut down on the risk of transmission among students. He has said schools should be doing their best to return children back to classrooms safely, citing the benefits of in-person education.

“I’ve spoken to superintendents and principals and recommend, if possible, outdoors, better than indoors,” Fauci said in August.

Around St. Louis, outdoor learning opportunities have been mostly limited to private schools. Most public schools moved to all-virtual learning for the first quarter of the year. When they do reopen, there will be cost, space and safety concerns that could limit the outdoor class time, superintendents have said.

Those who are able to learn and teach outdoors said they appreciate the opportunity.

“I like it more outside, it gives us a little bit of a change,” said eighth grader Kayla Caughlan, 13, at St. John’s Lutheran School in Arnold.

About 25 students transferred from public schools to St. John’s this fall for the in-person experience which includes an outdoor classroom. Students spend their study hall hour at picnic tables, plant vegetables in a garden and go on scavenger hunts. The outdoor classroom also gives the students a break from wearing masks.

“It’s a freeing atmosphere,” said eighth grade homeroom teacher Nikki Becker. “It’s another opportunity we can provide to enjoy learning.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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