A Vermont school that moved many of its classes outside for the COVID-19 era is pledging to make outdoor learning a permanent part of the curriculum — and showed off its approach to the nation's longest-serving U.S. senator Thursday.
At Richmond Elementary School, administrators said while it had outdoor classes prior to the arrival of coronavirus, their big push toward growing outdoor learning started as a safe way to return to in-person classes during the pandemic. The approach enabled educators to spread kids out, give them fresh air, and allow a few mask breaks.
"It's warm out and it's pretty out," said second-grader Riella Lawney, describing other appeals to outdoor learning.
"It's more fun to read books outside than inside," added Elsa Golden, another Richmond second-grader.
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Richmond Elementary School's principal, Jeremy Rector, said the approach connected with kids in the community so well, it's not only sticking around, but it's growing.
Rector explained the school more than tripled outdoor classroom spaces recently, is about to build a permanent roofed structure, and is increasingly incorporating nature into the curriculum.
"Writing prompts — you could say, 'Look around to nature, pick something, and write about it for five minutes,'" Rector said, offering an example of a nature-focused assignment. "And that seems really challenging, and all of a sudden, the creativity and the flow that comes with focusing on one leaf for five minutes and trying to write about it? The opportunities are pretty endless."
More on the coronavirus pandemic in Vermont
Kindergartners were eager to show NECN and NBC10 Boston a tiny salamander they discovered as part of a unit on spring life in the woods.
"I like finding bugs out here, and beetles," said Meely DeLong, a kindergartner.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, visited Richmond's outdoor classes Thursday.
Leahy was key to delivering more than $440 million to Vermont schools through various federal COVID relief programs.
After his tour, Leahy said federal money will be invested across the country in school infrastructure to improve education long-term—including by enhancing internet access.
"We'll get the schools opened back up, we'll get better ventilation in the schools, better sanitation, better ways of keeping kids apart, but we have to do that," Leahy said. "I hope we never see COVID again, but I'm not so naive to think that'll happen."
Rector said the school is partnering with area nonprofits focused on conservation, including Shelburne Farms and the Green Mountain Audubon Center, to sharpen its outdoor learning focus.