As more and more districts across the country make the difficult decision not to open for full time, in-person learning this fall, most schools are proposing a switch to remote learning or a hybrid of the two. Some schools, however, are reportedly considering moving classes outside in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent a potential outbreak. But is outdoor learning safe?
“Generally, having classes outdoors should be safer than indoor learning in terms of protection from Coronavirus,” Dr. Chad Sanborn M.D., a board-certified pediatric infectious disease specialist, tells Romper in an email. “Students and teachers will be inhaling a larger volume of ‘clean’ air, which will likely decrease the chance of infection,” he says. This makes sense, when you consider how stuffy a classroom can get when windows are closed — or there aren’t any windows at all.
“If you’re in a confined space (like a classroom), the particles have very few areas to move around in,” Dr. Syra Madad, pathogen preparedness expert and epidemiologist, explains in a phone interview with Romper. “But if you’re outside, the chances of inhaling those particles and them making contact with the mucous membranes is much lower.”
Still, just because classes might be held outside of a brick-and-mortar building doesn’t mean that students and teachers are completely safe from the virus. Even if the kids are cohorting, there will need to be additional measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 — and that means masks are a must. “The mask-wearing part is still key,” agrees Dr. Sanborn. “This will decrease the chance that one learner who is speaking will expel the virus, and whatever virus that is expelled should further be diluted and hopefully promptly carried away by the breeze.”
That said, a breezy day might not be the best time for teachers to take their classes outside. “While any viral particles may be more diluted, they still can travel far when being carried by a breeze, as been shown by studies that support a possible aerosol spread of this virus," Dr. Sanborn continues. Beyond blustery days, the weather is going to have a powerful impact on the success of outdoor instruction. “The schools are going to have to be mindful of logistics and the ways to make outdoor learning conducive, because if it’s too hot or too cold, the likelihood of kids absorbing the materials will be lower,” says Dr. Madad.
Even if classes successfully cohort outdoors, the semester will most likely have a shelf life determined by the onset of severe temperatures in either direction. “In certain parts of the country, learning outside for a prolonged period of time would be virtually impossible," Dr. Sanborn says. Eventually, kids would be forced to return to their indoor (and probably poorly-ventilated) classrooms.
In addition to mild weather, a school also needs access to an outside space large enough to hold classes. “Real estate is a big issue for schools, since institutions have been made for indoor learning,” says Dr. Madad. Naturally, this is particularly true for urban schools. And in some cases, outdoor learning might not be an option for children with allergies, for example, or kids with pre-existing conditions that would make it unsafe for them to be outside for an extended length of time.
“Being outside does not guarantee a lack of viral spread,” warns Dr. Sanborn. “Being in a particularly noisy area will cause people to shout more, which can produce more viral particles and negate some of the benefits of being outdoors in the first place.”
That’s why the same rules of social distancing should be practiced, whether learning occurs inside the classroom or out on the playground.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.
Chad Sanborn M.D., board-certified pediatric infectious disease specialist
Dr. Syra Madad, pathogen preparedness expert, epidemiologist, and Senior Director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program at NYC Health + Hospitals where she is part of the executive leadership team overseeing New York City's response to the Coronavirus disease