Why outdoor classes could be the solution to congested schools

Widespread adoption of outdoor learning has been undermined by a lack of funds, cautious local leaders, and logistical hurdles.

In Summary

• Health experts want schools to consider teaching children in person, but outdoors.

• It is designed to decrease the risk of Covid-19 transmission in classrooms with poor air circulation.

Pupils of Sukuk Primary School during a lesson under a tree
Pupils of Sukuk Primary School during a lesson under a tree

When you think about children learning outside or under a tree, the thought of inadequate or congested classrooms easily springs to mind.

In fact, schools that previously opted for outdoor learning only put up with the option for lack of funds and infrastructure. But outside learning could also be the panacea to congested classes ahead of January full reopening, health experts say.

They say the silver lining of the pandemic is the potential of outdoor classes to reduce contact between learners and teachers. It is designed to decrease the risk of Covid-19 transmission as children get fresh air for the better part of their lessons, rather than cramming them into classes with poor air circulation.

Already, some international and private schools have set the stage for outdoor lessons once they fully reopen in January. Vale School, an International School in Muthaiga, Nairobi, is one of the high-end private institutions that have braced themselves for the looming Covid-related crisis.

“We’ve put together a map where each grade level gets assigned a certain area of the playground or the parking lot so teachers know they can take their class outside anytime they want,” ” said Soiya Gichanga, the institution's director.

Scientific studies increasingly show that the virus spreads less readily outdoors than in, prompting creative leaders and teachers to figure out ways to get their learners safe.

This 'outdoor school' concept would differ in various parts of the country based on weather patterns and available space. But, especially for older schools with cramped conditions and poor air circulation, it could offer a significant pressure-release valve and schedule flexibility.

Importantly, it could also help provide safer and even lower-cost return to school if and when public health officials give reopening the green light.

Dr Anthony Fauci, who heads the American National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, suggested during one of his Facebook Live chats on school reopening that it is important to “get as much outdoors as you can”.

The idea is fetched from lessons drawn from the tuberculosis outbreak in the 1900, a report by the New York Times shows. The article reports that children were for months forced to take classes from outside even during the winter season to fight the then pandemic.

Gitahi Githinji, Amref Health Africa group chief executive, argues that outdoor time is healthy for children and will not only be important now but also necessary.

Though it isn’t free of problems, Githinji says, learning outside might be the only way to provide parents with a break, children with adequate education, and teachers with protection from the coronavirus.

"The virus tends to survive longer in unnatural surfaces which is what the class environment is largely made of. The outdoors, on the other hand, offer the opposite of this. Fresh air and natural surfaces mean the virus is suppressed sooner,” Githinji told the Star on Sunday.

But while some schools are considering outdoor classes as a partial option upon reopening in January, this way of learning will likely be limited to tentative experiments in pockets of the country. In some cases, it might not even come to that as some school heads seem unfamiliar with the concept.

“There was no proposal for outdoor learning that I recall. It was not part of the conversation in board meetings,” Nicholas Gathemia, the Kenya Primary School Heads Association chairman told the Star on Sunday.

But his high school counterpart Indimuli Kahi said, “Using outdoor space to keep students safe and physically distant is one option."

Kahi, however, added that outdoor learning can only be a stopgap and cannot be depended on as a long-term measure.