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Opening doors to outdoor learning

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Wild Whatcom is proud to be working with a coalition in Whatcom County helping the community re-envision learning, child care and peer-to-peer connection. The Whatcom Coalition for Environmental Education, comprised of more than a dozen area nonprofits, businesses, agencies and tribal institutions, meets regularly to identify areas for increased collaboration and coordination among their organizations and with schools.

As an active community of professionals, WCEE focuses on expanding and deepening access to high-quality, culturally responsive environmental education for every child in Whatcom County. With the emergence of COVID-19, the coalition is now focused on integrating learning outdoors as a tool for equitable and safe school reopening.

We are starting to understand how the outdoors may be our best bet for offering child care, schooling and other enrichment programs (art, dance, exercise and recreation) that are safer for our children and community. Or, in other words, how now might be a time for outdoor education to thrive:

We are learning more about how it is safer to gather outdoors. Open, moving air makes it harder for vapor droplets contaminated with COVID-19 viruses to pass from person to person. In a May 2020 article in The Hill, Roger Shapiro, a professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health stated, “[COVID-19] definitely spreads more indoors than outdoors. The virus droplets disperse so rapidly in the wind that they become a non-factor if you’re not really very close to someone outdoors—let’s say within six feet.”

Linsey Marr, an engineering professor and aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, was quoted in a recent New York Times article saying, “I think outdoors is so much better than indoors in almost all cases. There’s so much dilution that happens outdoors. As long as you’re staying at least six feet apart, I think the risk is very low.” Preliminary case studies are beginning to confirm that COVID-19 transmission is far greater in indoor environments than gatherings outdoors.

Education and health officials are recommending more time outside. Guidance for fall 2020 learning from the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction encourages public instructors to provide more space between students, including keeping students outside more. This guidance follows the advice of local and global health officials who are preferring outdoor gatherings as much as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends pre-K and elementary schools “utilize outdoor spaces when possible” as “higher-priority strategies” (along with wearing face coverings and spreading out desks). They also make a general recommendation to utilize outdoor spaces for secondary schools and school meals.

Whatcom County benefits from local outdoor experts and an abundance of natural spaces. We are all familiar with the many beautiful parks in this area, many of us drawn to this region for that very reason. We also have a wealth of knowledge in the community as demonstrated by the WCEE membership and groups such as the North Cascades Audubon Society and the Northwest Mushroomers Association. National resources such as the eeEducation Guidance for Reopening Schools from the North American Association for Environmental Education can also advise how to equitably incorporate more learning outdoors.

Spending time outdoors also has intrinsic, scientifically proven mental and physical health benefits. Time in nature is not only associated with higher levels of physical activity, but is also linked with evidence-based health benefits including reduced stress, improved mental health, increased prosocial behavior and connectedness, greater happiness, decreased obesity and diabetes, and improved cognitive and motor development, among others. Now, more than ever, getting outside may be a vital addition to our daily regimen.

Our local school districts mobilized quickly in the spring, focusing first on child care and free meals to ensure students were sheltered and nourished. Shortly thereafter, local teachers worked tirelessly to bring education into the households of every child in the district, enabling families to connect with district-issued technology and tech support and setting up wireless connections.

However, despite the commendable efforts by our education leaders, the county (and world) is learning more about how online learning only increases existing inequalities as some students may not have the time, space, or support to utilize technology in the home.

The outdoor education field, which helps to augment in-classroom learning, has also been hit hard by the pandemic, unable to support students during this time. Preliminary research from a May 2020 survey on the impacts to the industry from the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley estimates that by December 2020 some 11 million kids who would have been served by as many as 1,000 organizations will have missed environmental and outdoor science learning opportunities. About 60 percent of them are from communities of color or low-income communities.

It is highly likely that 30 percent of these organizations will not reopen. More than one-third of the outdoor education field—up to 65 percent—will likely have disappeared, eroding a key component of the nation’s education infrastructure

During this unprecedented time, there is also potential for an unprecedented collaboration across organizations and schools to support youth in equitable and safe learning. Keren Bitan and Ben Greené, who are co-leading WCEE as a program of the Whatcom Community Foundation, share “as the pandemic has forced so many organizations to rethink and adapt, it is incredibly inspiring to see these leaders setting a powerful example by working together for the benefit of every young person, creating new models of safe, equitable and inclusive learning outside.”

A strengthened partnership between schools and outdoor educators may both reduce the COVID-19-related risks of in-person instruction and peer-to-peer connection and save an invaluable industry in the community.

Through August, Wild Whatcom is offering an adapted version of our summer programming with reduced group sizes, masks, social distancing and other safety measures. We are also piloting virtual programs similarly to others in town—including the City of Bellingham, Common Threads, Garden of the Salish Sea Curriculum, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, North Cascades Institute, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, and Whatcom Conservation District—hoping to encourage participants and families to stay connected and get outside.

Licia Sahgun is the executive director of Wild Whatcom, http://www.wildwhatcom.org. Find out more about the coalition at http://www.whatcomenvironmentaleducation.com. Consider a donation to these nonprofits to support their vital work.

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