(CNN)When students return to Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, this month, they'll find a campus transformed by Covid-19. Masks are required outside of dorm rooms; fall sports are delayed.
Outdoor classes are safer. How can teachers make it happen?
Many courses will be a hybrid of virtual offerings and in-classroom time. But one professor will be holding class outdoors as long as possible.
"I will be teaching my environmental studies class outside whenever the weather is non-lethal," said David O'Hara, a professor who is also the university's director of sustainability.
This isn't just pandemic thinking on his part. Two years ago, O'Hara worked with students to build the campus' first outdoor classroom from locally sourced slate, granite and quartzite.
He relishes the chance to use it. "I teach outdoors as often as I can," he said, pointing to a long tradition of outside learning that includes open-air lectures by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers.
"You remember when you were a student, sitting in a classroom and staring out the window?" O'Hara asked. "I just figured, Let's go to the other side of the window."
Now, as educators return to work amid the pandemic, that decision seems prescient.
That's because scientists believe that transmission of Covid-19 is far less likely outdoors than indoors. Maintaining physical distance can be easier outside, and infected droplets dispel more quickly in fresh air. The sun and wind, studies have suggested, may help reduce the presence of viable viruses on surfaces.
Some educators are asking if bringing students outside is a feasible way to safely hold in-person classes, which the American Academy of Pediatrics said are important for students' academic progress, mental health, safety and psychosocial development. Even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that school administrators consider repurposing outdoor space for teaching.
And while moving classes outdoors might seem intimidating to instructors accustomed to roofs and walls, it's not exactly uncharted territory. In contexts as varied as O'Hara's college courses, outdoor "forest preschools" and Waldorf schools, teachers have been exploring the benefits — and the challenges — of outside learning for years. Here's what these educators have learned.
With Augustana's home base in South Dakota, O'Hare's definition of "non-lethal" weather rules out thunderstorms, tornados and temperatures below -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything else is fair game, he said, which means proper clothing is essential. He has offered to help students find the coats, hats and gloves they'll need this winter.
When it comes to outdoor teaching, school clothes are an equity issue, said Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America. "School districts ... need to think about clothing for children so everyone is equally warm and dry when it's cold and wet," she said.
The nonprofit Green Schoolyards America is a longtime advocate for adding nature and the outdoors to America's education system. Before the pandemic, the organization worked with school districts to manage properties for hands-on learning and reducing environmental harms.
"That involves years-long planning," she said. In June, though, GSA pivoted to providing immediate help for the current crisis, launching the National Covid-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative with strategies and guidance. The initiative's website cites "the urgent need to reimagine PreK-12 schools in order to safely reopen."
"It's more like landscape triage," she said. "It's like, What can you add to your grounds the most quickly, the most cheaply, that will produce the most comfortable, welcoming, inviting place for kids to be when schools reopen."
The group's outdoor learning summary includes tips on necessary infrastructure, which could include seating on log rounds, hay bales or picnic tables.