For native Santa Feans, the field trip to the watershed in 5th grade epitomizes outdoor learning. But recently, few students have made their enduring visit with the Santa Fe Watershed Association.
"We haven't been able to do in-person field trips since fall of 2019," says Morika Hensley, director of planning, education and restoration at the association.
Field trips make up the bulk of students' outdoor education, relegated to a few sessions per year, including the well-known Audubon New Mexico and Santa Fe Botanical Garden trips offered to elementary school students. When shared indoor environments like classrooms became uninhabitable last March, shuttering schools across the state, formal outdoor learning opportunities also stopped.
Outdoor classrooms presented an appropriate solution to both predicaments.
These learning spaces bring "outdoor education to the schoolyard, within walking distance of the classroom, so that we can get students outside as soon as possible," says Hensley. With spring already here, these learning environments provide a good option in light of teachers and parents expressing hesitancy over returning to school.
Last October, the Public Education Department released guidance on outdoor learning to support school reentry, but few schools in Santa Fe chose these learning spaces given sparse resources in an already tumultuous year.
"It's a shift. Moving from indoor to outdoor, there are a lot of logistics involved," state Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart tells SFR. "When you layer it on top of all of the other shifts with COVID, it was difficult for many people to make all of those shifts together."
With the announcement that schools will be fully open April 5, the state presented COVID-safe practices to support reentry. They align with measures schools took in February, including surveillance testing and eating outdoors.
"Schools must look to utilize their outdoor spaces as much as possible for meals," Stewart says.
The PED expressed hope that outdoor education will see growth this year.
"Now that we've had more time, we've got a little more experience in every area working with COVID, and the weather's getting warmer and we have more federal funds to be able to support buying some of the materials and equipment," Stewart says. "We're certainly hopeful more schools will take advantage of it."
The Senate jumped on the outdoor classroom bandwagon, signing Senate Memorial 1 on March 1. The legislation will establish a task force to "make recommendations about how to expand and improve outdoor classrooms in New Mexico. And it will bring agencies together to identify resources and supports that are needed for these outdoor classrooms," Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, the memorial's sponsor, said during the Senate discussion.
Yet, with only 48 days left in the school year, it's unlikely students will do much learning outside before the summer break. And opportunities for outdoor excursions to the watershed look slim.
"We're hoping by next fall we can start offering field trips again, but we're on standby depending on what the school district decides," Hensley tells SFR.
"While the 'how-to' of creating these spaces is well established, I'm really excited about the potential of fiscal resources becoming available to school districts to make this reality possible for all New Mexico kids," Lisa Randall, sustainability program coordinator at Santa Fe Public Schools, writes to SFR, "We'll see it at Aspen Community School for sure. The realistic push will be for fall of [the 2021/22] school year."
Even with the reopening of schools around the corner, a district spokesman says explicit plans on outdoor classrooms aren't on the table.
The idea of using outdoor classrooms to combat disease outbreaks is not new. In the early 1900s, schools in Providence used the same practice to slow the spread of tuberculosis among children.
Today's proponents cite both the advantageous conditions that largely prevent airborne transmissions and the longstanding benefits described in the research that point to improved engagement and academic achievement for K-12 students. Young New Mexicans already benefiting from outdoor classrooms echoed these findings in a Senate session last month to speak on behalf of SM 1.
"Since we are in a global pandemic, outdoor classrooms are better if we want to continue our learning now without getting sick," Adaiah Gonzales, a 6th grader at Turquoise Trail Charter School, told senators. "We know that outdoor classrooms are in an outdoor learning environment and you get to do your favorite things from school outside instead of inside."
Area environmental educators have recently focused on improving access to outdoor learning after realizing "it wasn't being equitably distributed across the district and across grade levels," Mollie Parsons, the former director of education and interpretation at Santa Fe Botanical Garden, tells SFR. Parsons collaborated with other advocates to develop a curriculum aligned with state science standards which supports educators teaching in outdoor learning spaces.
Eileen Everett, executive director of Environmental Education of New Mexico, worked to bring these outdoor learning opportunities closer to schools through the organization's multi-year strategy: Every Kid, Every Day, Every Way.
The initiative, beginning in 2018, serves as a framework to support equitable daily access to outdoors learning. Everett, along with 90 groups across the region, drafted the vision to answer the questions, "How do we not create extra burdens but actually maybe lighten the load for teachers and parents and kids and families? How do we invest our time and resources in ways that aren't adding an additional layer on our already over-stressed teachers?"
With over 300 days of sunshine a year, schools in Santa Fe are positioned to make this vision a reality. In her time as an outdoor educator, Everett worked with every school in SFPS and tells SFR, "Schoolyards at Santa Fe public schools really lend themselves beautifully to doing outdoor learning. Several schools across the district have already set up outdoor spaces, even prior to COVID."
The state's acknowledgement of outdoor classrooms is a step in the right direction, but getting schools to act on building appropriate outdoor learning spaces faces other challenges.
"There can be a misunderstanding of what those spaces need to look like," says Randall, "Those of us who have utilized the outdoors for teaching, prior to having a designated outdoor classroom space, we can really inform the discussion and say these can be quite simple and here are the elements that need to happen. They need to have flexible mobile seating, there needs to be some kind of shading or protection from the elements, specifically sun here and wind."
SM 1's passing reflects the momentum built up by environmental educators across the state. Advocates hope this inertia is leading to systemic changes in the educational landscape. Or as Randall puts it, "That's part of what this effort is, to rebuild our positive relationship with nature no matter what age we are."