Any other year, an outdoor lesson might have felt like a walk in the park — literally. But now, having a chance to participate in school activities against a backdrop of changing leaves feels less like an autumn picnic and more like a chilling necessity. 

As of early September, around 800 New York City schools had obtained approval to hold part of the school day in recess yards, closed-off streets, or city parks as per the city’s newly-minted outdoor learning program. This much-lobbied program gives approved schools the option to hold art, music, and gym lessons outdoors if they so choose. Academic classes can also take place outside, provided that the school has enough space to support them in addition to other outdoor activities.  

The vast majority of schools that applied to the Education Department for program approval received it, with only a handful of declines due to safety concerns. However, education officials prioritized their considerations based on need — the schools that have been hit more severely by COVID-19 and those without dedicated schoolyards took precedence. 

Countless parents, faculty, and administrators successfully lobbied local government officials to uphold outdoor learning; now, their implemented program enjoys widespread support. 

“A new outdoor learning plan that is going to open up a lot of new, wonderful possibilities for our kids and for our educators,” Mayor Bill de Blasio commented during a press conference on the matter. “We heard those voices that said, ‘Could we do something different under these circumstances?’ The answer is: yes. This will apply to our public schools, our charter schools, private/religious schools, Learning Bridges schools. You name it. One standard for all.”

The idea behind the program is simple: by moving classes outdoors, schools can better allow for learning while limiting the risk of COVID-19 spread. Public health authorities have firmly established that outdoor environments tend to be safer due to their increased air circulation. 

As one writer for the Mayo Clinic explains: “When you’re indoors, you’re more likely to inhale these droplets from an infected person, especially if you’re in close contact, because you’re sharing more air than you do outdoors. Poor building ventilation can cause droplets to hang in the air for a longer period of time, adding to the potential for infection. When you’re outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing these droplets. So, you’re less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19 to become infected.”

It is worth noting that there is a precedent for outdoor learning, too. In the early 1900s, several New York City schools attempted to minimize tuberculosis spread by moving students to outdoor classrooms on rooftops and, in one case, an abandoned ferry. 

Holding open-air classes is an excellent idea in theory — but in practice, a few flaws remain. 

Since the plan’s debut in late August, several educators have raised concerns that it would unfairly benefit privileged city schools while leaving poorer institutions out in the proverbial (if not literal) cold. Their concerns are warranted; after all, outdoor learning isn’t feasible for schools located in areas with high levels of violence or those near noisy roadways. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods often have the advantage of being within walking distance of parks or having green space on-campus. 

Moreover, the bill for outdoor learning can be difficult for poorer schools to foot. As one reporter for the New York Daily News recently pointed out, “Schools are responsible for raising their own funds to purchase tents for shade and weather cover, and must provide their own barriers and staffing to close off adjacent streets — leaving schools with wealthy parents in a better position.”

Some argue that this gap reflects a lack of adequate planning from the city. Indeed, comments from city leadership on the economic barriers faced by less-privileged schools seem to convey some passing of the buck. 

“If a PTA has done their fundraising and they’ve raised more than enough for their school, let’s identify another school that doesn’t have that fundraising capacity,” Chancellor Richard Carranza suggested during a news conference

Administrators and education lobbyists weren’t entirely satisfied with that response. 

“Relying on PTA fundraising to fund this effort only exacerbates inequity,” Mark Treyger, the chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, pointed out on Twitter after the conference. 

Outdoor learning has a great deal of potential. However, we need to continue to workshop the idea even as we implement it and find ways to give less-privileged schools the resources they need to hold open-air classes with as much ease as their wealthy counterparts. Children should have the chance to learn and gather in safety — now, it’s up to educators and the city of New York to turn a great idea into a fair and effective solution.