As weather warms, Vt. schools eye return to outdoor classrooms

Published: Mar. 9, 2021 at 5:36 PM EST
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RUTLAND, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont is in the process of vaccinating school staff in an effort to get all students back in the classroom full-time. But vaccinating adults against the coronavirus doesn’t address the amount of space needed to keep older children six-feet apart from each other. Olivia Lyons is looking at how outdoor learning could help.

Weather depending, Scott Ellis predicts Thetford Academy’s tents will be back up in early April. “I’m excited to see those tents go back up and see kids back out in that environment,” he said.

Last fall, the school used a pre-existing timber frame structure and bought tents to use as outdoor classrooms. About 300 students in grades seven through twelve go to school here. Three-quarters attend in person most of the week.

“Maybe our number of students who are choosing to be fully-remote will go down, below 20%. That would be great,” said Carrie Brennan, the academy’s head of school. She says the tents allow space for more students on campus by giving them time to air out and disinfect classrooms.

But not all schools have the space to accommodate those older students while physically distancing six-feet apart. Vermont Health Commissioner Doctor Mark Levine says they’re using science and data to inform decisions for middle and high schoolers. “The percentage of elementary schools that have in-person education is quite high in Vermont, so it’s not that they’re returning to anything, they’re already there. It’s the more higher-level grades where these decisions will have more of an impact,” he said.

The state is awaiting further guidance from the CDC that might allow older students to be closer than six feet, which means more students could fit in a classroom. In the meantime, some schools are going back to using tents as they did in the fall.

“Some people have rented tents, they don’t know where they are going to put them yet,” said Mike Lubas with Vermont Tent Company. He says just under 10 schools have already confirmed tents for this spring, approaching the 15 they saw in the fall. “We’re sort of getting into a similar situation as we did last fall where availability is going to start to get a little bit limited based on the number of schools that are now looking for tents.”

There was one positive case of COVID at Thetford Academy over the course of the pandemic, but Brennan did not have to close the school, proving a majority of older students attending full-time is possible, and Ellis said being outside does help. “It is safer, it also feels safer. Those are both important things as we deal with the pandemic that is going on. And so I don’t think it is the answer, but it is a good element and I’m really glad that we have it,” he said.

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