Outdoor School During the Pandemic

High school students across the country are realizing the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on our lives. Most students, instead of being at school amongst teachers and classmates, are now at home, experiencing for possibly the first time an online education instead of a physical one. But sixth graders and some high schoolers in Multnomah County are missing out on an additional facet of their lives, one that was highly anticipated for many: Outdoor School.

Outdoor School is a program run by the Multnomah Education Service District that is offered to sixth graders throughout Multnomah County and surrounding areas. Students go to experience a week’s worth of hands-on, project based science classes outdoors with their classmates and other schools. For many students, Outdoor School is their first time being away from their family overnight or spending time in the great outdoors. It is an experience that many treasure and remember for a long time, and it’s a landmark in students’ lives. But this year, some students did not get to experience the spring session that had been planned. 

Because of the spring session cancellations, the Outdoor School staff is hard at work, not in the field working with students, but at home working on redesigning the Outdoor School curriculum in a more equity-focused way. “We’ve used this as an opportunity to really take a look at some of our older curriculum and activities, and we hope that the updates we’ve devised will be durable updates for some of those older modalities,” says Paul Susi, also known as “Badger,” who is the site supervisor at Angelos, one of the Outdoor School sites. The staff is using this time to consider students’ current needs, and taking advantage of time off-site to really focus on improving the program. Curriculum-building is a large project, with Field Instructors and Program Leaders working in teams to build, analyse, and distribute the new curriculum. They rely on student leader and teacher feedback to ensure that the new curriculum is conducive to the Outdoor School experience. Curriculum development, for Outdoor School staff and volunteers, is truly a team effort.

Since this closure was so unexpected, the staff are still unsure about how students will be able to make up their session. “We are hopeful that students that missed this spring will be able to participate in some form of Outdoor School in the future,” says Outdoor School Coordinator Jennifer Basham, otherwise known as “Pheff” while on site. The program is working on a solution for those students, she says, and “in the meantime, we have developed many activities for families and teachers to use to engage in science concepts in their neighborhood.” 

Sixth graders are not the only people missing out on an Outdoor School experience this spring. Student leaders, high schoolers who sign up to help lead students throughout the week, are also missing out on what could possibly be their last session. For student leaders, Outdoor School isn’t just a volunteer opportunity— it’s an experience that’s just as important to them as it is to sixth graders. For lots of student leaders, Outdoor School is an important community where they can be themselves and help sixth graders learn. “[Outdoor School] gives me the chance to give kids the unconditional love and respect that I didn’t get in school,” says Abby Steward, a junior at Wilson High School.

For prospective student leaders, it’s a disappointment to miss the session. However, the staff at Outdoor School are doing their best to make sure that everyone can still connect with the community. Depending on the site, some are holding online social hours, where staff and student leaders alike can relax and have fun while socializing. According to Susi, the community is involved in Instagram challenges as well, and the Angelos Instagram account (@mesdodsangelos) features videos of the staff honoring seniors who would have been experiencing their last session. 

For Doré Young, a Franklin senior, Outdoor School is a chance to make a difference. “Teens can support outdoor education, climate education, and time away from technology,” she says. She plans on coming back to Outdoor School for at least a week next year, after having missed her last session as a student leader due to the cancellation. This situation is true for other student leaders who, unbeknownst to them, experienced their last session before they had planned. Right now, things feel uncertain, and no one truly knows what will happen next. However, as Susi says, “We’re not going anywhere. Outdoor School is 55 years old, and we’re pretty confident that we’ll be happening, in one way or another, for a long time to come.” 

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