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Outdoor classroom pilot project gaining popularity in Toronto

Last Updated Oct 5, 2020 at 5:14 pm EST

“It’s exciting,” says Lauren Hazelton, a grade 4 student at Father Serra Catholic School in Etobicoke about her reimagined physical education class, being held in a tent outside in her school’s yard.

For weeks now, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) has been running a pilot project in ten of its schools, trying to see if this new environment is a feasible option to create more spaces for kids to learn in and at the same time, try and curb the spread of COVID-19.  And it’s not a bad way to get some fresh air, either.

“So far, everybody seems to be enjoying it,” says school principal Dolores Rios. “Teachers want to get in there and test it out.”

And it seems the idea is gaining traction.

Ward two Etobicoke Centre trustee Markus de Domenico says there are eight more schools currently planning to roll out the pilot. The board is requesting additional funding so it can be done across the city.

“I’d love to see all of the schools get something outside,” he said. “Most of our schools in Central Etobicoke have a lot of land, so if we can fit it in, we should do it.”

With COVID-19 infection cases rising in the province, and many schools experiencing outbreaks themselves, spending more time outside may become more of a necessity than an option.

With 63,000 students in the board, around 70 per cent of elementary students and nearly three-quarters of high schoolers have opted for in-person learning. Many of these students also live in COVID-19 hotspots.

Learning spaces are also tight indoors and even with social distancing, many parents have been concerned about kids’ safety.

The tents being naturally aerated allow for more than one cohort to use the space.  As for the colder that’s to come? The principal says heaters and other furniture are being considered so the kids can come to school and enjoy their outdoor time.

“The cooler air is going to present challenges at [the] best of times. But we’re encouraging the kids to be prepared for the colder months,” she says.

As for using the tents for classes other than physical education and music, superintendent of education Flora Cifelli says that option is being looked at, but the safety of students and staff is the priority.

“The tents are a pilot project and we are working on guidelines to make sure they are being properly used,” she says.

Each tent costs the board anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 for a one-time installation fee and four months of use. The TCDSB says it used $100,000 of government funding towards the project.

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