UPDATE, Dec. 22: Corrects story to reflect that the Seattle school district recently approved one outdoor learning program serving four students.
The risk of catching the coronavirus is lower outside than inside, and for that reason, a lot of people were hoping that public schools could mitigate risk by shifting instruction to the great outdoors.
In Seattle, despite a push in the summer to make that happen, most programs, except for one small pilot, are still not up and running. But in Whatcom County, dozens of kids in three school districts have been learning outside for months.
On an unusually sunny December day, kids soaked up the rays and played on the playground at Kendall Elementary School, nestled in the foothills of Mount Baker.
It would have been an ordinary scene a year ago, but now the kids wear masks and try to stay six feet apart. One of the students is an 11-year-old named Hazel, who loves being outdoors and is an avid mushroom picker. She said she recently found a “really cool mushroom trail” near her new house, where she’s been picking chanterelles.
“They are delicious,” she said.
So she was excited to take part in a once-a-week outdoor education program called Connections. Hazel and about three dozen other sixth-graders were invited by the school district to participate. Hazel said she knows not to take this for granted after spending months stuck at home when schools shut down in the spring.
“It made me feel stressed because my friends are some of the people that I used to see daily at school and it was scary at first, and then it just got really boring,” she said, adding that she’s “way happier” now.
The program is run in partnership with outdoor-learning nonprofits, including North Cascades Institute. That’s the group that Mary Kristina Kirkpatrick-Waite works for as an outdoor educator.
She and about 10 kids tromped through the woods at a nature preserve and wetland area near the school, stopping to look at frost, trees covered in lichen and the ground carpeted in decaying leaves. They’re studying decomposition.
“I want you all to find a leaf that has been broken down by something,” Kirkpatrick-Waite said. “What do you think that was broken down by?”
One student suggested a caterpillar. Another guessed water.
As she walked with a student named Bailey, Kirkpatrick-Waite said outdoor learning feels especially powerful right now when kids have been isolated.
“They’re just really excited to get to see their friends again and just to be outside and not be home in front of a screen,” she said. “I don’t know if you agree with that, Bailey?”
“I’m fine with that,” Bailey said. “Because if I’m stuck on a screen, I stay on a screen.”
In the distance, a flock of geese began honking.
“Oh, yeah, you can see the geese, check that out,” Kirkpatrick-Waite said. “They’re at the very edge of the water.”
Mount Baker Superintendent Mary Sewright said the environment of rural Whatcom County lends itself to a program like this.
“We’re Mount Baker. Look at all this beautiful land that we have and our spaces are just great opportunities for learning,” she said. “I think we should take advantage of that.”
The district is small, serving about 1,700 students. Sewright said teaming up with outdoor-learning nonprofits like North Cascades Institute made sense. It was a chance to work out the coronavirus safety protocols and pave the way for the district to reopen on a hybrid schedule for elementary kids last month. With that schedule, all elementary students come two mornings a week. But kids in the outdoor education program get an extra day at school.
“It was just a great opportunity to get our kids here in person and prove that we can do it to make people more confident about bringing kids in in-person, because we know especially with elementary kids, that’s really important, and the benefits really outweigh the risks,” she said.
But it’s not easy to get a program like this off the ground quickly, especially in three school districts: Mount Baker, Blaine and Bellingham. With the Connections program, the Blaine School District serves about 20 kindergartners. As many as 110 second- through eighth-graders have taken part in the Bellingham outdoor learning program since late October.
Whatcom County had a head start because there’s already a network called the Whatcom Coalition for Environmental Education. When the pandemic hit and forced some of the nonprofits to cancel their overnight camps, they scrambled to innovate, said Jeff Giesen, associate director of North Cascades Institute.
“The coalition was a perfect place at a perfect time and all the groups got together and said, 'What can we do?’ ” Giesen said.
The idea they pitched to school districts was to serve students left behind by online learning – students who maybe never logged in during the spring or whose parents work outside the home, and kids who would benefit from meals served at school.
“The part that really spoke to me was when they said what type of kid we’re looking for, the furthest from opportunity,” Giesen said. “It’s for the kids that really need this.”
They received grants, including from the Whatcom Community Foundation. For the Mount Baker program, they raised $20,000, which pays for the outdoor educators and supplies. The school district provides the building, busing and pays for four paraeducators to help out.
Giesen and Sewright said the program has not experienced any coronavirus outbreaks.
The speed with which Whatcom County nonprofits and school districts created an outdoor learning program contrasts with the state’s largest school district – Seattle. Seattle School Board Director Liza Rankin has pushed for an outdoor learning program.
“Our original proposal was to have pilots going in the first quarter,” she said.
Seattle has gotten five submissions from educators for outdoor instruction, but most have not been approved yet. One pilot at Adams Elementary School serving four students "furthest from educational justice" who need in-person language arts instruction got underway in mid-December. The district recently posted an update on the process, explaining the steps involved in approving the classes, from evaluating safety protocols to lining up transportation.
In an email, district spokesperson Tim Robinson addressed why the approval process has taken this long.
"It is a complex, new enterprise," he said. "It includes health and safety protocols, which staff will need to be trained for."
Rankin said one reason why it’s been slow is that normally new initiatives start with a task force that sets up a pilot to use as a model. In this case, the board wanted to move fast and put out a call for ideas. That led to a lot of questions.
“Central office was saying, 'What are they piloting?' And we’re like, 'Whatever they want to do,’ ” she said. “So getting the whole system to loosen up and accept that we really were just saying, 'Go for it’ was interesting to watch.”
The idea of partnering with outdoor education groups is intriguing, Rankin said, but funding it is an issue.
"We do have all these organizations that are around and want to help, but who pays for it?" she said. "We cannot expect everyone to just provide free labor."
So the delay means the sunny fall days have come and gone with no outdoor education in Seattle Public Schools.
But at Kendall Elementary in Whatcom County, kids have been examining caddisflies scooped up from a nearby pond and dissecting owl pellets to see what the birds have eaten.
Hazel said examining owl pellets has been the most fun she’s had in the program so far.
“I found three mole jaws. It was super cool,” she said. “And I found a pelvis bone as well, and a few claws.”
She said when she first heard they’d be picking through what is essentially owl vomit, “I was really grossed out, and I thought I wouldn’t like it at all. But then it became the best part of the day.”
Sparking that kind of excitement for learning is what school is supposed to be about.
The organizers of the Connections program hope more kids can have this opportunity and that other school districts will follow their example to use nature as a classroom. They are applying for more grants to continue the program after winter break and potentially expand it.