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Spreading out in the great outdoors

Students head outside during pandemic to take advantage of fresh air

After finding a grassy spot to sit with a book in hand, Countryside Elementary School second-grader Nora Rysdyk summed things up succinctly.

“I like reading and I like being outside,” she said. 

The warm, dry days of early fall mid-pandemic are inspiring Byron Center teachers to lead their classes in the great outdoors. Art? Reading? Math? Learning of all kinds is possible, they say as they turn schoolyards into makeshift classrooms and invite students to settle down on yoga mats or blankets. 

“It’s nice because we get to be outside, have a mask break and get out and read,” said Countryside’s media specialist Tara Kietzman.

“We have the sounds of the birds,” said Nickels Intermediate sixth grade teacher Melissa Thomas, as she led her students out to a picturesque area of the schoolyard to create maps tied to narrative writing. As often as she can, she takes her classes outside — much more than in previous years. 

“It’s a great time for a socially distanced mask break,” said Thomas. “We sit around, take our masks off and enjoy being outside,” she said.

Added sixth-grader Claire McDowell, “You get an overwhelming feeling of fresh air. You get to see everyone’s faces too.”

The change of scenery and cool breezes are also stress relievers for teachers who are tasked with different and increased duties this school year. The quiet reading time for Kietzman’s students — who come in groups to the library for half-hour sessions each week — is respite for a job that requires a new level of organization. She said every library book must be quarantined for 72 hours after use. “We have to do what we have to do to be here,” she said.

Countryside Elementary School second-grader Kim Trang finds her own spot to read

The Healthy Outdoors

Forget grandma’s warning about catching a cold outside. Public-health-wise, outdoor activities are considered lower-risk for coronavirus transmission than indoors, so that’s a major benefit.  

“I definitely want to recommend outdoor learning as a wonderful option for teachers,” said Joann Hoganson, director of community wellness for the Kent County Health Department. “(Students) are able to spread out more and the breeze and the movement of the air helps to disperse the virus if someone actually is COVID positive.”

The Michigan Return to School Roadmap also recommends keeping classrooms windows open, and holding physical education and recess outside as much as possible. 

Countryside Principal Jolynn Knowlton said they are also adding six canvas awnings outside to use as learning spaces and yoga mats for sitting on. They already have a schoolyard garden and wetland trail, both of which are optimal for science and cross-curricular lessons. 

“We are hoping to keep them outside as long as we can,” she said. “They are breathing their own air for so long during the day, we want to get them outside as often as we can to learn.”

Countryside Elementary School second-grader Nora Rysdyk likes to head outside with a book

An Outdoor Gym of Sorts

Countryside gym teacher Doug Saltzgaber holds his 11 classes totally outside so the gym can be used for extra cafeteria space. “This is our alternative plan,” he said. “This has been designated my new gym.”

While sharing balls and other equipment isn’t allowed right now, the perimeter of the school parking lot has become a 1,000-foot track where students run, skip, hop and jump. Saltzgaber’s students are participating in the Move Across America fitness challenge, which Saltzgaber said is easy to do online if the school must return to remote learning.  

“We are going to be out here all the time, guys,” he told students as they took a rest, sitting on a curb six feet apart.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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