As Winter Looms, Outdoor Schools Face Tough Decisions

On Sept. 8, five inches of snow fell on Boulder, Colo., just three days after the city had experienced a record-breaking heat wave. Nobody was expecting this weather whiplash, certainly not JJ Morrow, head of school of Mackintosh Academy Boulder, an independent school that had always taken students outdoors for at least some parts of the day, but had committed to nearly all outdoor learning this year to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

“It was a total, total nightmare,” Morrow said. Many students didn’t yet have winter gear at the school, so teachers had to move the kids indoors, and not all parents and teachers were happy about it.

At that point, Morrow realized the school was not prepared for a winter of outdoor learning. “I had to write a letter to the community saying, ‘We’re ready and we’re not ready, in a lot of ways,’” he said.

With winter just around the corner and coronavirus cases spiking nationwide, the hundreds of schools that have been trying to keep students safe from Covid-19 by moving them outdoors are now grappling with how to also keep them safe from the elements and when to move them indoors. While school administrators knew of all the challenges cold weather would bring, some still felt it was worth trying for as long as they could — even if they did not have the money or the time to get everything ready in advance.

Most outdoor schools loosely follow the Iowa Department of Public Health’s Child Care Weather Watch guidelines, which suggest that kids can be outside indefinitely if the temperature is 32 degrees or higher and winds do not exceed 15 miles per hour. When temperatures are lower or winds are stronger, kids can be outdoors but should be monitored closely, they say. If temperatures dip below 13 degrees, the guidelines say that young children shouldn’t be outside at all, and that older kids should be outside only briefly.

ImageThird graders sit for their morning lesson under an outdoor structure, called Sunflower Cottage, at the Berkshire Waldorf School in Massachusetts.
Third graders sit for their morning lesson under an outdoor structure, called Sunflower Cottage, at the Berkshire Waldorf School in Massachusetts.Credit…Eric Limon
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Students at Mackintosh Academy Boulder make use of the campus’s 23 acres, like this second grader who is working on his art nature journal.Credit…MaryAnne Miner

But many schools simply have not had enough time to create solid outdoor safety plans. Last spring, schools were scrambling to figure out remote learning, so most fall planning was put off until the summer. As a result, this school year “has been like building a plane while flying it,” said Brooke Teller, the outdoor learning coordinator for Maine’s Portland Public Schools district.

Karen Fierst, an educational consultant who serves as the reopening coordinator for the Berkshire Waldorf School in Great Barrington, Mass., has advised the school’s teachers and parents to expect the unexpected during their outdoor schooling this year — to “be preparing for change, as opposed to preparing for any kind of perfection,” she said. And to be comfortable with needing to shift plans on the fly.

Just last month, for instance, the Massachusetts school was caught off guard when temperatures dropped into the 20s after an otherwise temperate autumn, and high winds forced the school to pre-emptively take down the waterproof shade sails they had erected for outdoor shelter. The winds made lighting outdoor bonfires dangerous, so they had to move indoors from time to time for warming breaks.

Those few days “were really hard,” Fierst said. “People got really upset.”

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A third grader from the Juniper Hill School in Maine analyzes the forest floor and records its natural patterns.Credit…Anna Stires
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At the Monadnock Waldorf School in New Hampshire, teachers prepare a homemade snack for the students every day.Credit…Bridget Love

Many (mostly public) school districts have also struggled with money. Teller’s district in Maine, which includes 17 schools, received some federal and local funding to purchase extra gear like snow pants, hats and gloves for students, but they couldn’t buy enough for everyone, she said.

Amy Leonardi, a parent who runs the outdoor learning project committee for Falmouth Public Schools in Massachusetts, said she hears about what private schools are doing — erecting ventilated yurts and using clay stoves — and can’t help but feel jealous. “I’m calling my building guy and I’m like, ‘Why can’t I have that?’ It’s so different in the public school sector.”

To overcome winter clothing shortages, many schools are organizing gear swaps and coat drives, where parents can trade their children’s outgrown coats and cold-weather accessories for others that fit.

Leonardi has also been soliciting monetary donations from the community to pay for winter shelters. Right now, the schools’ outdoor structures consist of rented tents, which can’t withstand high winds or heavy snow. She is considering buying greenhouses that she can keep ventilated (by opening doors) and warm (with electric heaters).

Schools are experimenting with less expensive ways of keeping kids comfortable, too. The Juniper Hill School in Alna, Maine, which has long embraced outdoor learning, has hot tea available for its students as well as hand and toe warmers, and often a bonfire. The school also advises parents to pack extra snacks (for energy) and insulated and hot meals (for warmth) on the coldest days.

Some schools give students rubber hot water bottles to keep against their bodies. “They’ll just tuck them down into their snow pants and go for hikes with their core being warmed,” said Nell Wiener, the head of program at the Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene, N.H.

Wiener and Adrienne Hofmann, Juniper Hill’s early childhood director, emphasized that keeping kids moving is essential on freezing days. “If I think the children are cold, I just put them to work. We’ll stack firewood,” Hofmann said. At Mackintosh, classes move around the campus’s 23 acres to follow the sunshine throughout the day.

How students dress is also important. “Layers, layers, layers,” is what Petra Obritzberger, the director of German International School Chicago, which has erected tents in its parking lot as outdoor classrooms, tells parents. Hofmann agreed, adding, “we often tell our parents if you’re not sure what to pack, pack it all.”

Wool is better than cotton, since it “can get wet and still keep you warm,” said Matthew Schlein, the founder and director of the Walden Project public school program in Vergennes, Vt., who has been teaching outdoors for 21 years. Waterproof outer layers help, too. “Rainproof mittens are absolutely essential,” Hofmann said.

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Students and teachers begin the day at the Juniper Hill School, ready with their layers of clothing, sleds full of gear and teaching tools.Credit…Anne Stires

Even with good plans in place, though, many schools will end up spending time inside this winter. Schools “have very different, culturally determined, geographically based ideas of what’s cold and what their plans are,” said Sharon Danks, chief executive and founder of Green Schoolyards America, a nonprofit that advocates for and helps schools implement outdoor education. At Juniper Hill, students will go indoors only for short periods of time, and not as entire classes, Hofmann said.

Leonardi envisions using heated greenhouses to keep students sheltered but still somewhat outdoors. Monadnock Waldorf School in New Hampshire, on the other hand, may tell kids to stay home. “If it’s not forecasted to rise above 12 degrees by noon, then we would have a remote day,” Wiener said.

Still, most outdoor schools are hopeful that they will be able to stay outside much of the time — and that the more they learn, the easier it will get. It’s normal for the first few cold spells each year to be challenging, Hofmann said — everyone has to adjust and remember how to listen to their bodies. “It takes time for the children to be like, ‘Oh, my hands are so cold, I can’t use them. That’s why I should be wearing my mittens,’” she said.

As for Morrow, from Mackintosh Academy Boulder, the first September snowstorm felt defeating, he said, but the school has grown from the experience and said that outdoor learning is now largely working, even on cold, windy, snowy days.

“We’ve been in person for almost 11 weeks. And we’ve been mostly indoors for five total days,” he said last week. “We have, I would say, developed a culture where kids are more comfortable being outside.”


Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and health writer and the author of a forthcoming book on raising children.

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