NEWBURYPORT — In response to COVID-19 concerns, River Valley Charter School faculty and staff decided to look outside the box or more specifically — the building — and use outdoor community spaces to their advantage.
Last fall, the school divided the four E2 classrooms — fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders — into eight cohorts. Each cohort has an assigned outdoor site: Maple Crest Farm in West Newbury, Beech Hill Farm in Amesbury, Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury or Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and PITA Hall on Plum Island.
Each cohort alternates one week at its outdoor site and the next week inside the building, allowing the school to limit class sizes to about 10 to 12 students for adequate social distancing. Despite the ever-changing New England weather, School Director Jonnie Lyn Evans said it all comes down to dressing properly.
The school has switched to remote learning on a few occasions due to inclement weather, but Evans said students are more resilient than people think.
In January, the school moved to half days due to the weather. Students are now at their outdoor sites from 8:20 to 11:20 a.m. before heading home for lunch and a few hours of remote learning. The school plans to return to full days at these sites March 15.
Each site has its own benefits, but all sites have a shelter for students to retreat to if needed.
At Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, the students and staff have a whole classroom set up in the barn, but they spend a lot of time exploring each corner of the Historic New England property.
Drew Balanoff, a trained outdoor educator at River Valley, said he uses the large property to his advantage.
When students were learning about the solar system earlier this year, he used the open fields to help students put into perspective the distance from one planet to another. Students spread out with each foot between them representing thousands of miles.
Last week, the cohort made their own sundials using sticks and stones. They placed sticks in the ground, facing north at about a 45-degree angle. On each hour that they were at the farm, they placed stones where the shadow from their sundial fell.
Other activities have included building quinzee snow shelters — similar to igloos, rehabilitating the chicken coop, discovering a variety of plants and animal tracks in the woods, and studying navigation by visiting Plum Island Airport next door.
“They really have brought a light to this farm at a time during this pandemic when it really is pretty lifeless around here,” said Arleen Shea, the education coordinator at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm.
Shea, who usually sees about 8,000 students visit the farm each year, has coordinated a few virtual programs for various schools this year, but said “it’s not the same.”
Seeing these students use every inch of the farm — from feeding the animals to building fairy houses along the trees — has brought her and others who frequent the site a lot of joy.
Like other schools, faculty and staff members scrambled to find unique solutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic last fall, Evans explained.
“It was pretty tough, what we did to these educators,” she said. “We put a lot of pressure on them.”
The outdoor sites and details were confirmed at the last minute, so teachers had to coordinate with one another to ensure a fluid transition between indoor and outdoor curriculum each week.
The school surveyed families at the start of the year to ensure that this outdoor program would be feasible and that parents would be able to transport their children to and from these sites.
The program has been successful with many students thriving in the new environment.
“For the kids who are not all-star academic types, this has given them an opportunity to shine in ways they couldn’t before,” Evans said.
Jon Ellen, an assistant teacher who has had the opportunity to work both indoors and outdoors this year, said many students like the change each week.
“Even for the kids who prefer being outdoors, the fact that they’re outdoors half the time makes the indoors easier,” he said.
Looking ahead, Evans said the school will look to keep outdoor learning as part of the curriculum, saying students are learning “life applicable skills” that will benefit them in the long run.