To ease social distancing and reduce health risks linked to in-person learning, school administrators are getting creative about finding more space.
In the United States, some schools are setting up outdoor shelters and making use of other empty spaces, like museums.
In normal times, people get married at a large convention center in Hesston, Kansas. Businesses hold training programs for workers at the convention center, while Christian groups use it for religious events. But during the coronavirus health crisis, the building has become a schoolhouse for middle school students.
Megan Kohlman teaches literature and writing inside one of the rooms. Her class is separated from a math teacher’s space by only a thin piece of plastic.
For Kohlman, this class is an improvement from distance learning last spring. “Everyone just really believes in the power of having kids with us as much as we can,” Kohlman said.
As infection rates rise across central Kansas, some education leaders say they wish more schools would consider different approaches to learning.
Joseph Allen is an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts. He says the costs of keeping children out of school are “devastating.” He believes that more creativity is needed in how schools work during the coronavirus health crisis.
“With schools, we seem to be stuck in this closed mindset where it is only in schools or in the existing setup or it is not going to happen,” Allen said.
In New York City, Council Member Ben Kallos pushed for unused stores and buildings to be used as classrooms, along with libraries and senior centers. But the idea did not go far because of concerns about laws, costs and other issues.
Kallos said that New York had many empty stores before the health crisis. That problem has only gotten worse.
“It seems only natural that the city could have activated each and every one of these spaces to serve our children in this time of need. It is disappointing and …. irresponsible that the city didn’t do it,” Kallos said.
However, some 1,100 New York City schools have been approved to spend part of their day outdoors. The city’s schools have enough indoor space for social distancing but are also using other spaces, such as closed streets. That information comes from Katie O’Hanlon of the New York City Department of Education.
Nationwide, many school systems have moved classes outdoors or are making plans to do so, said Sharon Danks. Danks heads Green Schoolyards America, a California non-profit group that works in support of outdoor education.
In New Orleans, the Louisiana Children’s Museum has been used as a classroom for about 60 students. Young children from Langston Hughes Academy can spread out among the indoor exhibits. Outside, there are flower gardens and trees.
“If this building were empty day in and day out, it would just be depressing,” said the museum’s chief Julia Bland. “The teachers have been totally engaged by this. They say they have never been so excited about going to work.”
Samantha Keppler is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s business school. She wrote early this year that schools could use the power of relationships with religious groups and other organizations to add space to make school reopenings safer. She said it has not happened as much as she had hoped.