As with all schools in Illinois, Chicago Free School had to close its doors in mid-March of 2020. Within a week, teachers had switched to online learning. We thought it might be temporary, but schools remained closed throughout the rest of the school year. To help save money, the board decided to furlough the teachers for the month of July. We had no idea what COVID-19 rates would be like in late summer/early fall.
An Idea Is Planted
As July progressed, I was thinking about what do in the fall. A friend shared an article about year-round open-air classrooms for children with tuberculosis in Rhode Island that were convened in the early 1900s. They were held in sheds with a roof and screens all around. I began to research other outdoor classrooms through the years, and that got my wheels turning.
The teachers came back together by Zoom in early August. We had to make a decision about how we were going to start our school year. None of us seemed excited about the prospect of teaching inside of a classroom. I said that I did not see a point in starting the school year online, and shared my research about outdoor classrooms as a way to be in person with minimal risk. Two other teachers immediately latched onto the idea. After more conversation, others agreed to give it a try, as well.
Once the decision was made, we spent mornings hashing out our COVID protocols based on CDC and CDPH guidelines, followed by hours of research throughout the day and into the night. We found outdoor sinks with foot pumps. I spent at least eight hours researching flush camp toilets for an outdoor bathroom for my young students. I researched tent and tarping options until 2 a.m. on several occasions. I placed many orders for all the items we would need to make this work. I went on early morning shopping trips, filling my carts with big storage bins. I made daily visits to the outdoor spaces of the building where we rent, to see where we could each set up our classrooms — including my own classroom, in an enclosed backyard. I spent hours trying to figure out how to hang tarps for shade and rain protection. A parent helped me erect these under the hot August sun.
Executing the Plan
On September 8th, we opened for the fall. I welcomed masked children to their outdoor classroom. The first hour was ominous, as there was a storm and we had to go inside the adjoining hall, but soon we settled into our routine. Each child had their own beach tent set six feet apart, with a mat or little floor chair and a lap desk. They each brought pencil bags with their own drawing and coloring supplies. We read stories and had our morning meeting. We worked on projects based on the children’s mind map that they created with their questions and things they wanted to do that fall. Afterward, they would have free choice. Each had their own bin of puzzles, manipulatives, games, etc., so that things only had to be disinfected when we switched them around at the end of the week. We went for walks around the neighborhood, ate lunch in the tents, and went to the playground before coming back to doing quiet activities until the end of our day. We passed the other classes in their various outdoor setups in courtyards and parking lots, all learning in the fresh air.
Due to mild weather, we were able to be out there into the second week of November. We had some chilly weather the last week of October, even some sleet and snow, but for nine weeks, we only needed to go inside several times, and usually for no more than an hour. We were able to observe summer turning into fall. On beautiful fall days, it was a real pleasure. When the colder weather finally came, we went online, due to the COVID surge at the time. The children took their bins and materials needed for projects home with them. We still met on the playground for over an hour every day. We took a longer winter break and came back mid-January online, with the hopes that we could have more in-person learning if we extended the school year into summer.
Now, some of us are back in person in the classroom. But I think we are all planning to return to our outdoor classrooms after spring break as it continues to be a year of adaptation and flexibility.
Lisa Rademacher is a preK/kindergarten teacher at the Chicago Free School. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and other members of Sophia Community, an intentional community in Hyde Park that she helped found many years ago.