In pandemic, some schools innovate with outdoor classrooms  

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  • Walter Tebbetts, jr. counselor, makes sure Diego Mendoza-Mackler is strapped in for the swing portion of the ropes course at Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center in Shutesbury. The camp has run during the summer outside with masks and social distancing. Friday, July 31, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Daniel Sayre swings back and forth after releasing himself from a swing portion of the ropes course at Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center in Shutesbury. The camp has run during the summer outside with masks and social distancing. Friday, July 31, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Parker Dion, 8, makes his way down a tree with help from a counselor during summer camp July 31 at Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center in Shutesbury. The center has launched a program for home-school students for the fall. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Parker Dion, 8, makes his way down a tree with help from jr. counselor, Liam Coughlin during summer camp at Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center in Shutesbury. The camp has run during the summer outside with masks and social distancing. Friday, July 31, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Silas Danson-Holman,9, makes his way across a ropes course at Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center in Shutesbury. The camp has run during the summer outside with masks and social distancing. Friday, July 31, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Josephine Becker and Olive Paradis “fence” on a portion of the ropes course at Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center in Shutesbury. Originally the campers pass each other on the log but because of social distancing rules it has been changed. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Trevor Chalmers, left, who is the property manager at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, and Sean Jeffords, the owner of Beyond Green Construction in Easthampton, install roof decking on a new timber frame teaching pavilion, Wednesday, Aug.12, 2020 at the sanctuary. The 30-by-50 foot pavilion will be used primarily for teaching Forest Preschool students, but also for functions, like the annual Festival of Birds. It is expected to be completed by mid-September. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Reed Sustick, a first grader at The Hartsbrook School in Hadley, raising his hand on the first day in the school’s outdoor classrooms. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Heather Damon walks with a group of second graders at The Hartsbrook School in Hadley, while holding on to a rope with knots that are six feet apart. The school has opened with outdoor classrooms. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jessica Stark teaches a group of eighth graders at The Hartsbrook School in Hadley which has opened with outdoor classrooms. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Maggie Testa teaches a group of first graders at The Hartsbrook School in Hadley on their first day Tuesday. Classes will be all-outside “as long as we can,” says Leslie Evans, the private school’s enrollment director. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sophia Lax-Holmes, Amelia Lingo and Fenton Cooper-Roberts, during an 8th grade class at the Hartsbrook school in Hadley. The school has opened with out door classrooms. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pax Docarmo, a first grader at The Hartsbrook School in Hadley, works on a desk chalkboard on the first day of the school’s outdoor classes Tuesday.

  • Jonathan Mazur, left, and Brian Johnson of the Amherst Schools Facilities and Transportation Department set up a 30- by 30-foot canopy just outside the gymnasium at Fort River School on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jonathan Mazur, left, and Brian Johnson of the Amherst Schools Facilities and Transportation Department set up a 30- by 30-foot canopy just outside the gymnasium at Fort River School on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Workers finished installing a 30-by-30-foot canopy on the north side of Fort River School on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ben Herrington, left, and Jonathan Mazur of the Amherst Schools Department set up a 30- by 30-foot canopy just outside the gymnasium at Fort River School on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jonathan Mazur, left, of the Amherst Schools Facilities and Transportation Department adds ballast to one of the barrels anchoring a 30- by 30-foot canopy set up at Fort River School on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. At right is Assistant Director of Facilities and School Committee member Ben Herrington. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/5/2020 12:52:26 AM

HADLEY — Under one of 16 canopies set up on the grounds of the Hartsbrook School, first graders, each wearing a mask, sit at desks 6 feet apart, writing on small tabletop blackboards as they follow their teacher’s lesson.

Walking nearby, fourth graders with clipboards complete a scavenger hunt, marking down the objects they need to find on the campus.

Meanwhile, off a path in the woods a five-minute walk away, seventh graders are putting together the shelter for their classroom, made from repurposed cedar posts from a farmer in Shelburne Falls. And passing by the school’s garden, second graders hold on to a long rope, with knots tied at intervals of 6 feet, so they can practice social distancing.

As the first day of school arrived this week at the 55-acre campus, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means the 220 students enrolled at Hartsbrook, from the early childhood program to 12th grade, will experience a deeper connection to the land during their project-based learning.

“Basically we will be all outdoors as long as we can,” says Leslie Evans, the school’s enrollment director.

Students are returning for the first time since the school was mandated, like all public and private schools in the state, to go entirely remote in mid-March.

“They’re excited to be back, and we want kids to feel joyful again about coming to school,” Evans said.

The semester at the Waldorf school, where an emphasis is put on experiential learning, began at the end of August with a staggered opening in which high schoolers were in class Monday and Tuesday, and grades 1 through 8 attended for half-days to get accustomed to the new format. Students will be in class from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. daily, except Friday, when assignments will be completed at home for the following week.

Each canopied classroom is capped at nine students and one lead teacher and a co-teacher, with bigger classes split in two, Evans said. Subject teachers, including music, language arts and Spanish, will spend six weeks with each class, rather than more quickly rotating, so that the same people are together each day.

Because the school is open, there has been a surge in inquiries from parents seeking options that don’t involve remote learning, though Evans says that few slots are available.

Both public and private schools view the outdoors as a safer space than inside.

At Amherst Regional High School this week, for instance, three large tents are being set up to meet the needs of teachers and students when the semester begins, whether for instruction or mask breaks or other socially distanced activities.

School Committee member Ben Herrington, who also works for the school’s facilities department, said the tents are one of the ways the schools are enhancing the educational environment and promoting safety.

Hartsbrook is not alone in providing an entirely outdoor setting. Learn at Morse Hill has launched a program for home-school students for the fall semester on an 85-acre site in Shutesbury across from Lake Wyola, and Arcadia Nature Preschool is continuing its program on the grounds of the 723-acre Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.

At the newly established Morse Hill, an open rolling enrollment will max out at 40 children, initially for children ages 5 to 11, with teachers waiting and ready for the school year to begin this month, says Corinne Shaw, the program director.

Victoria Shaw, who owns and founded the Morse Hill Outdoor Education Center 20 years ago and is Corinne Shaw’s mother, said she felt this was the perfect time to introduce an educational site with no indoor components. A school has been a longtime dream for Shaw.

“It will combine what we do here at Morse Hill, the social and emotional and decision-making,” Shaw said. “We’re also going to be working on educational, cognitive and motor skills with the children.”

Progressive academics in line with common core standards will be offered alongside hands-on learning and restorative justice practices, with curriculum inspired by Waldorf philosophy and modeled after Oak Meadow home-schooling.

Corinne Shaw explained that there will be different “classrooms” on the 85-acre site where students will meet each day with their own learning box in a waterproof container. Older children will complete academic lessons on clipboards, whiteboards and other non-electronic devices. As weather gets colder, these classroom spaces will be kept warm, when necessary, by fire circles. Children and teachers can be outside all day and stay warm.

“We have a saying that there’s no bad weather, there’s just bad clothing,” Victoria Shaw said, adding that days will be shortened from six to seven hours to four hours during the coldest period.

Eight shelters and five other buildings on site can be used in case of emergency.

Free play time similar to recess will give students a chance to learn how to play outdoors. A community reading will take place each day after lunch, before another experiential-based learning project, and to end the day students wil participate in what is called a goodbye circle.

Scott Hartl, a board member for Morse Hill, said he is excited to see the culture building and student empowerment that will be part of the campus, noting that his three children experienced Morse Hill programs.

“This is a moment of incredible disruption in education and these disruptive moments can breed innovation,” Hartl said.

Scenarios are being designed both for the current pandemic and post-COVID-19 period. The organizers feel they are prepared based on experience from eight weeks of summer camp. One child attending tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the center to close for the rest of that week and make sure that 39 close contacts, including siblings and people who had car-pooled, were tested. All tests came back negative.

Outside all the time, children wear masks except when eating and drinking, or when doing activities such as biking and swimming when they can keep their distance. Activities over the summer changed so the children would move around more, with less standing next to each other and camp counselors when using equipment such as the ropes course. Morse Hill also worked with the town’s health board and health inspector and Dr. Kate Atkinson of Amherst to promote safety.

“We felt successful and our staff felt really good about what they were doing for socializing, getting kids out and about,” Victoria Shaw said.

Back at Hartsbrook, Evans said the safety measures taken have included staggered drop-offs by parents and limited use of indoor spaces. The school is using ionizing modules and filters and ventilation for all classrooms, with the indoor bathrooms each reserved for a specific class.

All students have to wear masks and each student has a container for keeping boots and other personal belongings.

“Our schools like to be outside, and they feel safer. You can’t ask for more ventilation,” Evans said.

As weather gets colder, Hartsbrook will close the sides of the canopies to keep out the elements.

Other protections include asking for a health check daily to report any symptoms to the school nurse, and if a fever is detected to not only not come to school but be screened by a physician. The school is working with town health officials and has built in what it is calling a “time bank,” using future vacations in February and April, should it need to close.




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