Kids in colorful shirts and masks walking single file

SL Tribune Editorial: USEE Use the outdoors to revive education

Utah Society for Environmental Education Executive Director Alex Porpora's letter in the Salt Lake Tribune. We have a talented community of environmental educators in Utah who are ready and willing to support learning this fall. USEE can also help schools develop outdoor classrooms. EE and outdoor education can help provide safe and equitable solutions to school reopening.

Alex Porpora is executive director of the Utah Society for Environmental Education

"School closures and the sudden shift to at-home learning have brought significant challenges for families, teachers and even the employers of parents. We applaud the efforts of Utah’s schools and educators who have worked to ensure that students still receive quality instruction and support.

Even with this work, hours of instructional time have been lost, not all families have access to virtual learning, working parents struggle to balance work and school expectations, schools are not designed to accommodate social distancing and the mental health of students, teachers and parents has been impacted.

Today, more than ever before, education is a team effort. We need the support of schools, families and education partners in order to be successful. Around the country and the world, we are re-visioning what school will look like as we continue to address these challenges. As we are rethinking the school building, instruction and all the social services that rely on reaching students through schools, it is critical that we rethink how we use the outdoors and outdoor and environmental learning providers as critical parts of the solution.

The outdoors is a resource for learning, engagement and health, and it should be available to all. Across all age groups, greater access to the outdoors is associated with reduced stress and greater mental health and well-being.

The risks of transmitting COVID-19 are lower in outdoor spaces than indoor spaces. Parks and open spaces around the state have been operating throughout the pandemic and have developed strong health and safety guidelines.

How can we begin to rethink how we use outdoor spaces on the school grounds for learning? How can we rethink the role of local nature centers, science centers, and other community organizations to provide additional indoor and outdoor space for schools to provide needed space for social distancing? How can schools, districts and families partner with local environmental and outdoor education providers who are experts in using the outdoors for learning to develop innovative education solutions?

Recovery and resilience in the era of COVID-19 is a community-wide effort. Adding the outdoors to our toolkit of solutions for schools and families provides another opportunity to meet the challenges we are all facing.

Environmental and outdoor learning providers are working hard to continue supporting schools, communities, and families with online resources and distance learning, continuing to provide high-quality education and connection to nature through virtual experiences, offering physically distanced programming to small groups of students, teacher professional development, curriculum and so much more.

As caregivers, you can share outdoor solutions with your child’s teachers, you can make connections with your local nature centers and community organizations about the opportunities they have to share.

As teachers, you can share outdoor solutions with your principal and administrators.

As school districts, you can reach out to local community environmental and outdoor learning providers to help co-create innovative solutions for your district.

We can all be essential partners in utilizing the outdoors for the recovery and re-opening of schools. Let’s work together to make sure that students continue to thrive and learn."