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Could schools hold classes outdoors to reduce coronavirus risks? Denmark tried it, and it worked

Medical experts say COVID-19 transmission decreases outdoors.

WASHINGTON — As D.C. school leaders are surveying parents about what they think the return to school plan should look like in the fall, advocates are offering an alternative: outdoor classrooms. 

According to medical experts, COVID-19 transmission decreases outdoors, making it a safer alternative to traditional indoor classrooms. 

“I know my kids are concerned about being in a confined four-wall space," parent Paige Ela said. "And going back to a series of zoom after zoom for a six and a 10-year-old is, you know, an exhausting idea.”  

It was an unconventional interview, but the Potomac River was the perfect backdrop as Ela spoke to WUSA9’s Delia Gonçalves about outdoor classrooms and the healing aspects of nature aboard her family boat.

“Specifically, after events of trauma -- and I think all of us have experienced that with COVID and Black Lives Matter events happening simultaneously -- there's a tremendous amount of research that suggests that getting out, breathing fresh air, seeing greenery is just really important to the healing process," Ela said. 

Ela testified before the school board recently, offering up the alternative for the fall. The DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee has not announced a finalized plan, but according to a member of REOPEN D.C.’s Education Committee, Ferebee is leaning towards an extension of distance learning, alternating students each day, and socially distant classrooms of 10 students.  

“It's really difficult for people to plan to go back to work under those circumstances,” Scott Goldstein of EmpowerED said. “So we want to think outside the box. The idea is that all of our students go back in a consistent way.”

EmpowerEd started a petition for school leaders to consider outdoor education. Goldstein admits they don’t have all the answers, but he believes it addresses issues of access to technology and equity.

“You can really have equity of access by using public parks, by using outdoor space, by closing streets around our schools to make sure that all schools have access to be able to use that,” Goldstein said. "The more space you have, the more creative you can be about things like inclement weather." 

Goldstein said schools could possibly invest in tents for rainy weather.   A team of EmpowerED advocates have even suggested canceling school during the cold winter months should the virus make a comeback during the typical cold and flu season.   

Goldstein said there is precedent for outdoor education, given that Denmark successfully returned to school in April by teaching in parks and open spaces.  

As for Ela, she’s already a believer that an outdoor education model can not only be safer and more equitable, but emotionally healing.

RELATED: DC public schools will start, online or in-person, August 31

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