Outdoor School Launches Programming for its Second Year Amid a Pandemic

An Oregon River with tall trees surrounding it. MESD Outdoor School brings 6th grade students to similar locations to learn about the forest. Photo by Isabella Smejtek.

Three weeks ago, on October 3, after a year of virtual activities, Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) Outdoor School began its annual programming, and it looks vastly different from previous years. Whereas in years prior 6th grade students would be transported by bus to a designated camp where they would stay overnight for 6 days, students this year walk with their teachers to the nearest public park, where for three half days they are taught modified versions of the traditional lessons on water, plants, animals, and soil. The new format of Outdoor School has been overwhelmingly successful in its goal of protecting students from COVID-19, but has raised concerns over equity and resource access, which Outdoor School is still working to overcome. 

MESD Outdoor School Senior Program Coordinator Jennifer Basham says the program’s first priority is “safety of staff, safety of student leaders, and safety of students.” In order to keep the Outdoor School community safe, MESD has been closely following guidelines from the State of Oregon, Multnomah County, Ready School Safe Learners, as well as their own teacher advisory group to construct a program that maximizes safety by minimizing the spread of COVID-19. Mount Tabor Middle School science teacher Anna Durocher notes that the program was very satisfactory in meeting PPS COVID-19 regulations, and is confident that “we were COVID safe the whole time.”

Another major priority has been maintaining and building equity in the program. Basham describes the realization that if they stuck to the traditional model of serving each sixth grader for 6 consecutive days, “any students scheduled for the fall would not have the opportunity for an overnight experience.” For this reason they made the choice to shift into a two part model in which all students will participate in a three-day experience in the fall, and if metrics allow, they will complete three more days on-site during the spring. The idea behind this model is to “[build] opportunities for students to get to know staff and student leaders in a day program which is hosted at the school sites” says Basham, and in the spring those same groups of students will be taught by familiar faces. 

However, concerns about equity go beyond giving every student an overnight experience. Program Leader and educator Tri Sanger, who goes by the name of Trilobite when working with students, is concerned that the necessary changes to the program surrounding student safety have had an impact on how equitable the program can be. They described a recent session at Ron Russell Middle School in the David Douglas School District in which it became apparent that “having students outside from school is a very different experience than having them come to us on site … we had students that did not own jackets, and had students that hadn’t eaten breakfast because their families couldn’t provide that to them and the schools did not provide that to them.” 

In a typical year of on-site programming, Outdoor School staff are able to provide students with the resources they need to create a level learning environment for all participants, with “coats and gloves and hats, and covered spaces that are ours to manage and give out to students if they need it,” says Basham, as well as three meals a day served in the dining hall, snacks, and water bottles. With these resources unavailable, Outdoor School shifted its format once again, this time from full to half days, in order to ensure that no student would be outside for 6 hours straight during winter months without the appropriate weather gear. 

The change in Outdoor School programming has also had an impact on high school students. A central aspect of Outdoor School is that it is taught in part by student leaders, who lead a cabin and specialize in teaching a science subject. 12th grader at Franklin High School and two-time student leader Abby Darr is passionate about the program because it allows her to be outside and “help kids who wouldn’t really get outside be able to spend a week learning outside.” This year, instead of leading a cabin, student leaders travel to their assigned middle schools and assist in teaching a class. Darr was assigned to Mount Tabor Middle School and MLC: “we spent two days with them each, so it did feel like there was a little bit of a connection there … but we were assigned to an entire class which was a large group, so it was kind of hard to have one-on-one connections with [students] over the course of the week.” 

Outdoor School typically has between 15-25 student leaders per session but is currently averaging around 5, so they are still actively seeking student leaders to participate.

Outdoor School is “for a lot of kids the first time that they come to a place and that they have positive adult role models,” says Sanger. “We have students that don’t traditionally thrive in a classroom environment who really thrive at ODS because we allow students to pay attention however they best pay attention, we allow students to cater their learning to their own interests, and we allow students to learn in ways that best suit them.”

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