First Look At What COVID-Era Outdoor Classrooms Will Look Like

Last week, with the start of the school year fast-approaching, Mayor Bill de Blasio gave public schools across the city the opportunity to submit proposals for outdoor learning, using nearby outdoor spaces including parks, playgrounds, and closed-off streets for open-air classrooms. The city said if schools submitted proposals by last Friday, they would have a response within a week — a promise that has had the DOE scrambling to approve hundreds of applications as quickly as possible, with more coming in on a rolling basis.

By the end of the day Tuesday, 869 schools had submitted outdoor learning proposals and the city had approved 337 of them.

One of the schools that got approved is P.S. 15 in Red Hook, which set up tents and tables outside its entrance on a closed-off Sullivan Street Wednesday morning in order to demonstrate how outdoor learning could work (there is historical precedence for this during other public health crises). Blue wooden police barricades were used to block off traffic at the end of the street.

During the demonstration, Nikki Laugier, a pre-K teacher at the school, led young children accompanied by their parents in an activity looking for various shapes in objects that had been assembled from nature such as leaves and pinecones. The surroundings were somewhat chaotic: In addition to reporters and politicians milling around, Laugier was competing with the rumble of nearby construction. But, singing and asking questions in English and Spanish, she was somehow able to hold the children’s attention.

“There will always be things thrown in our way, there’s always going to be some sort of noise, but you persevere and you get through that,” Laugier told NY1 after the event, noting that students can hear construction from inside the building, too. She said outdoor learning will be manageable because during the school year she will have no more than nine students at a time in her class and will have the assistance of another teacher.

A parent and student outdoors in Red Hook on September 2nd.


An outdoor learning set-up in Red Hook on September 2nd.

Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist

Schools all over the city are requesting permission to hold different types of classes and activities outside and will use outdoor space to complement indoor classrooms.

Councilmember Brad Lander, who spoke at the event, said he hoped schools would get creative. He said the option of outdoor space would be particularly useful as a way to let kids out of their classrooms at lunchtime.

“Right now, the DOE’s plan is that kids, including kindergarteners and first graders and second graders, are just going to sit at their desks all those hours and then lunch is going to come and they’re just going to sit at their desks and eat lunch,” Lander said. “If you have kids, you know there’s just no way that’s going to work. For those kids to have a productive school day, they’ve got to be able to move around a little.”

Outdoor learning setup with "Kids learn here" sign

Lander said that while the city has approved many applications for outdoor learning so far, it has been slow to approve applications to close streets for this purpose, instead seemingly prioritizing applications from schools that have only asked to use their schoolyards. He urged the city to approve schools’ requests for street closures ahead of the first day of school, which has now been delayed from the original start date of September 10th until September 21st.

Outdoor learning proposals are being reviewed by an interagency committee composed of the DOE along with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Parks & Recreation, the Department of Sanitation, FDNY, NYPD and the Street Activity Permit Office.

Debbie Riservato, who has children entering 2nd grade and pre-K at P.S. 15, said she has already decided to start off the school year with 100% remote learning, but would reconsider later in the fall and wanted outdoor learning to be available.

“I would like to see more funding for schools to be able to do outdoor learning,” Riservato said. “I think it’s the safest place for children to be right now. Inside, even with windows open, even with masks on, you still have ventilation issues and kids can get sick. Teachers can get sick through the air. I think we should put as much funding into outdoor learning as we can until we have a vaccine or we have our numbers down even further.”

Let's take learning outside sign

Parents and politicians at the event emphasized that the city should provide funding for schools to get tents and other materials needed for outdoor learning so that schools with lower-income parents, whose PTAs have less fundraising power, aren’t at a disadvantage.

De Blasio’s decision to allow outdoor learning, and his decision to give teachers and schools more time to prepare ahead of the first day back, followed pushback against the city’s reopening plan, including from the United Federation of Teachers, which threatened to strike if the city didn’t put in place additional safety measures.

As of August 28th, some 366,553 of the approximately 1 million students in the city were signed up for fully remote learning.

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