How COVID Has Actually Improved Some Elementary Schools

It took a pandemic to get teachers to embrace outdoor learning.

Denmark Begins To Ease Restrictions Following Coronavirus Lockdown
Ole Jensen / Getty Images

I'm a firm believer in trying to find the positive in any situation, but this philosophy has been hard to maintain at times during the coronavirus pandemic. Especially as my kids prepared to return to school in September after six months off, I felt anxious about what school would be like. Were they going to spend their days swathed in plastic, doused in hand sanitizer, disconnected from friends and teachers? How could this possibly be a good thing?

It has now been four weeks since they returned to school, and I can confidently say that it's gone well, for the most part. In fact – and here comes that persistent positivity! – there are some things the school is doing better now than it did pre-COVID. With so much fear and negativity circulating in the news these days, I thought it might be worth sharing a more upbeat take on some silver linings that have come out of an unpleasant and difficult situation.

(To be clear, my situation is very different from many others. I live in a rural Canadian town where the school is surrounded by plenty of open space, has a forest and lake nearby, and there are no active COVID cases within our community. I'm sure I'd feel far more nervous if I lived elsewhere.)

The first and most impressive change has been watching the school embrace outdoor education. My kids report spending the majority of their days outside, taking their books and worksheets out to the grass and sprawling there to complete assignments. Teachers are using the yard as a living classroom, teaching the kids about plants, identifying trees by their leaves, practicing their navigational (compass-reading) skills, using play structures for math and physics lessons. The fancy outdoor classroom that was built with fundraised dollars several years ago is finally getting the use it deserves. 

outdoor classroom
©. K Martinko – An outdoor classroom at my children's public school in Ontario, Canada

The kids come home tired, windswept, and happy; I don't see the frantic, distracted energy that used to come from being cooped up in a small room all day long with minimal recess breaks. For the first time ever, each of them tells me they like school, even with having to wear a mask.

The second major shift is in the school's attitude toward weather. In the past, if there was any sign of rain, the kids weren't allowed outside to play; they had indoor recess instead. Now that policy has done a full turnaround. An email from the principal last week stated that kids will be sent out in all rainy weather, unless there's thunder and lightning, and parents should dress their children accordingly. I nearly jumped for joy. This is something I've wanted for years, but my comments seemed to fall on deaf ears. Just as we dress our children for play in cold, snowy conditions, there's no reason why we can't do the same for rain – and finally it appears the school agrees.

Rules around lunch litter have tightened up, too. I received emails from my children's teachers prior to the start of school, saying that lunches must be litterless, packed in reusable containers. Because the janitorial staff is not emptying trash cans as frequently (due to their additional sanitization work, I assume), everyone is responsible for the waste they generate at lunchtime and must take it home with them. Obviously my family already did this, but it wasn't common practice. My kids tell me that more of their classmates are using reusable containers and water bottles, which is great.

I see far more children walking to school, presumably because their parents would rather them not take the bus. Because the bus company must pick up any child that lives more than one mile (1.6 kilometers) from the school, there are many in-town kids who took advantage of that service, but now they're more likely to ride their bikes or walk with friends. In a shift that I never would've predicted a year ago, walking to school has become less scary than being cooped up in a crowded bus.

The pandemic has caused interest to surge in alternative outdoor education programs. My kids' school expanded its forest learning program, which takes a small group of children to a nearby forest several times a week. The local official forest school, run out of a provincial park, has been at full capacity since registration opened in August, and all waitlists are full. Parents are suddenly less afraid of the outdoor elements than they are of the virus, and they're beginning to view it as a safe, friendly space. (Apparently the same is happening at the college level.)

Don't get me wrong – it makes me sad (and angry) that it's taken a pandemic to drive these changes. But these changes are good, healthy ones that have been far too long coming. My hope is that they will stick around long after life has returned to normal, and that if anything positive comes out of the pandemic, it'll be a greater appreciation for the outdoors and more willingness to venture out into it.