The Push to Move Classrooms Outdoors Is Gaining Momentum

Italian schoolchildren attend class outdoors. Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

In August, millions of students across America will begin returning to school. Some will attend in person, some will only “attend” online, and others, including New York City’s 1.1 million students, will do both, as school districts attempt to strike a balance between stemming the spread of COVID-19 and the advantages of having students in a physical classroom.

But as July comes to a close, a new idea is picking up traction around the country, and in New York City in particular: sending kids to school in person, but holding class outside. In a Daily News op-ed Wednesday, Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller, compared moving classrooms outside to restaurants moving tables to sidewalks and city streets. He wrote that the city has nearly 30 million square feet of outdoor space connected to schools that could be used to regularly hold classes outdoors. New York City Councilmember Brad Lander is pushing for outdoor schooling, too. In a letter to the Department of Transportation last week, he called for streets around schools to be closed to allow for outdoor classrooms and said 14 schools in his distract have already provided plans for outdoor schooling.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked about a petition — which has nearly 3,600 signatures as of this writing — calling for “OUTDOOR SCHOOLING NOW!” (His answer: “We’re going to look at that.”) And a survey last month of NYC parents “found strong consensus that outdoor space, including streets outside of schools, should be used when possible,” according to Streetsblog.

It’s not just NYC. A school in Vermont is planning to hold classes outdoors until the Thanksgiving break; a San Diego councilman is pushing for class to be held outdoors; and schools in Philadelphia, Knoxville, and Marin will be holding some classes outdoors this fall. Globally, schools in Denmark famously brought back students in May, with some classes held outdoors.

Teachers, some of whom fear a return to crowded, indoor classrooms, may be open to the idea, too. Michael Mulgrew, president of NYC’s teachers union, told the Times that holding class outdoors seems promising. And Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, seemed to tentatively endorse the idea to The Atlantic, before calling it a “Band-Aid solution to a much larger, long-term problem of how to safely and equitably get kids the education they need amidst a global pandemic.”

At this point, it’s widely accepted that the coronavirus spreads more easily indoors than it does outdoors. The evidence continues to bear that out. A recent study from Japan showed that transmission is 18.7 times more likely indoors than outdoors. And a review of 7,000 cases from China showed that only one came from a person who was infected outdoors.

Outdoor settings are believed to be safer because the aerosols people expel when talking are quickly dispersed when they’re outside. The virus also does not like sunlight.

But moving classrooms outdoors comes with a raft of considerations and potential pitfalls. Many schools don’t have enough outdoor space to accommodate outdoor classrooms. In some places, the weather will be miserable in August and begin to get cold in November. And then there is the issue of transportation. Classrooms can, at least in theory, be moved to the open air; school buses can’t.

The Push to Move Classrooms Outdoors Is Gaining Momentum